Judge Orders Trump Administration to Identify Thousands More Separated Migrant Families

Recently reunited, Yvette and her son J. are staying at the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants shelter in Chicago. (Courtesy of the National Immigrant Justice Center)

A federal judge in San Diego ordered the Trump administration on Thursday to find possibly thousands more migrant children who were separated from parents at the border. After those separations, immigration officials sometimes lost track of exactly where those children went, and to whom they were related.

At a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw told officials he was confident they would be able to identify all of the children to the court by Oct. 25, 2019.

Family Separation at the Southern Border

“It is important for all government actors to have a time frame and a deadline,” Sabraw said. “I intend to stand on it unless you indicate otherwise and articulate reasons that demonstrate good cause for an extension.”

Cmdr. Jonathan White, with the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, will lead the government’s effort. The agency is responsible for caring for migrant children in U.S. custody.

Appearing in person to explain the plan, White told the judge, “We’re going to go as fast as we can.”

“I ask that you do as you say,” Sabraw later said to White, “to get this done right as quickly as humanly possible.”

Sabraw had rejected the government’s initial plan to track down those children over several years.

Officials to Scour Thousands of Migrant Kids' Records

U.S. officials plan to review the cases of some 47,000 migrant kids who passed through government shelters from July 1, 2017, to June 25, 2018. On the next day, June 26, Sabraw issued a temporary injunction against family separation.

That order compelled officials to identify any children still in U.S. custody who could be reunited with their parents.

Officials then determined that 2,814 children were taken from parents at the border. As a result of the judge's order, the majority of children were reunited with their parents. However, nearly 600 were released to other relatives or sponsors, and 45 children remain in government-run shelters.

Then in January 2019, the inspector general for Health and Human Services reported that thousands more children were separated from their families before the judge’s order, and fell outside the accounting required by the court.

Last month, Sabraw decided to include the parents of these additional children as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union to end family separations.

“I don't believe there's anybody who knows how many children will be in the expanded class,” White told Sabraw. “I think if we knew that, all of us would probably have an easier time today.”

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Judge Orders All Parents to Be Contacted

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt thinks at a minimum parents need to be contacted and asked whether they want to be reunited.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Gelernt said after the San Diego hearing. “These families were separated 10 months ago. We may not have the most recent contact information from them.”

White, who is in charge of identifying the children, said he's received new data from Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. He estimated that his team would identify between 500 to 1,000 children within weeks.

“This is the best available solution to achieve a rigorous accounting as quickly as possible,” White said.

Sabraw made it clear that the government must provide the names of all children who were separated from their parents, “including parents with criminal history or communicable disease or that may be in custody,” even if the government ultimately decides that such parents pose a danger to their children and are not eligible to be reunited.

The parents of 15 of the 2,814 children identified earlier were  found unfit to be reunified. A handful of parents have challenged that denial in court.

The judge ordered the government to provide progress reports every three weeks, and set the next hearing on the matter for May 17.