On Deadline Day, More than 700 Migrant Children Still Separated From Parents

Protesters and their children participate in a sit-in in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to mark the court-ordered deadline for the Trump administration to reunify thousands of families separated at the border. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Updated Thursday, 6:30 p.m. 

The U.S. government has yet to reunite at least 711 migrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a status report filed Thursday to a San Diego-based federal judge. Judge Dana Sabraw ordered that all the families broken apart by a Trump administration policy be reunified by the end of the day.

Whether the government met or did not meet the court's deadline is somewhat complicated. Sabraw's June 26 order is clear that "[d]efendants must reunify all class members ... within thirty (30) days." But exactly who is a member of the class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU continues to be disputed, and the government has distinguished between families "eligible" and "ineligible" for reunification by Thursday's deadline.

"The numbers really are dynamic," Chris Meekins, head of the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response for Health and Human Services, said in a conference call Thursday afternoon. "But by this evening we believe we will meet the court deadline to reunite all children with parents who are eligible in ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody."

Lee Gelernt, the ACLU's lead attorney on the case, said on a separate conference call that the government would not, in reality, meet the court's deadline.

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"The only deadline they met is their self-defined deadline," he said. "They unilaterally declared who was eligible for reunification by this deadline. There's going to be a lot of work going forward."

Of the total 2,551 children identified as separated in the case, 1,820 had been discharged from the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement as of 9 a.m. Thursday:

  • 1,442 were reunified with parents in immigration custody.
  • 378 were otherwise released, including reunifications with parents out of custody, release to another family member or sponsor, previous reunifications in immigration custody or children who turned 18.

An additional 20 children were found after further review to have not been separated from their parents by immigration officials, according to the government's filing.

"ICE and especially ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] has made a concerted effort and dedicated an inordinate amount of resources to ensure that these reunifications did occur," said Matthew Albence, executive associate director with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Of the 711 children who were not reunified with family or otherwise discharged by Thursday morning, the government provided the following list (in which some categories overlap and therefore add up to a larger total):

  • 431 children whose related adults were deported without their children. The filing did not explain why the number was reduced by 32 children since the government's last status report earlier this week.
  • 120 children's parents allegedly waived reunification. The ACLU is contesting these waivers, arguing that many parents were confused about their rights and coerced into signing them away. It's unclear why that number was reduced by approximately 87 since the government's last report.
  • 94 children whose related adults' locations are "under review."
  • 79 children whose related adults were released into the interior of the United States. Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice said at a status hearing Tuesday that agencies had been unable to contact some released adults.
  • 67 children whose related adults were "red-flagged" during a case file review or background check. These adults may have criminal history or other reasons, such as no familial relation, that preclude them from reunification with the children.

Exactly how the parties will proceed with the largest group of still-separated families — those with deported parents — was unclear as of Thursday evening.

"The reason these parents are coming here in the first place and paying smugglers $5,000, $6,000, $10,000 to make that dangerous journey across Central America and Mexico is because they want to get their children here," Albence said, adding that all parents were given the option to be deported with their child. "Once their children are here, they're generally not going to want to give up the opportunity to have that child remain here in the country, which is why they frequently decline to have that child removed with them."

But Gelernt said many of those parents have likely not been informed about their rights as class members in this case. He chastised U.S. officials for creating a "cruel, unconstitutional, inhumane policy."

He said the government's attitude should not be, " 'We're proud we're doing the reunifications,' as if they're showing up to fix some natural disaster. This is a disaster that they created."

The government is expected to provide updated numbers at a hearing Friday afternoon, and the parties are expected to argue about the ACLU's request that deportations of reunited parents be delayed until one week after their attorneys have been notified.