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'Disturbing': Judge Asks Trump Administration to Explain Why It Withheld Contact Information for Separated Migrant Parents

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Protesters call out words of encouragement to immigrant detainees held inside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles on June 30, 2018, in a demonstration against the Trump administration's immigration policies. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A federal judge is asking the Trump administration to explain why it took so long to provide additional contact information for the immigrant families it separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that the administration had finally provided a tranche of phone numbers and addresses needed to help reunite hundreds of families, information advocates had been requesting for nearly a year.

"This is disturbing in that it does seem to be readily available information," said U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in a hearing held remotely on Friday.

The new contact information comes from a database held by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

In court, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who's representing the separated families in the ongoing lawsuit against the Trump administration, noted that the information was only released after the issue of family separations came up in the final presidential debate in late October.

"Only [after the debate] did we hear from the government that maybe they might have additional information," he said. "And now we're first getting this information that actually adds phone numbers and addresses for many of the people for whom we didn't have anything for."

Gelernt said lawyers are still going through the data, and hope it will help them locate the remaining 628 parents that they're still searching for, who remain separated from their children. More than 300 of those parents "are believed to have been removed from the United States following separation from their children," according to a status report filed in court on Wednesday.

The Trump administration began its formal policy of family separations in the spring of 2018. After months of public outcry, Sabraw issued an injunction ordering an end to separations that June, and required the government to swiftly reunify children with their parents. Authorities eventually identified 2,814 separated children.

But in early 2019, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a watchdog report charging that the border separations began much earlier than had been previously thought — as early as July 2017. It identified more than 1,500 additional families that had been separated. This group makes up the majority of families that advocates and lawyers are still searching for.

Sabraw asked for a written declaration from Trump administration officials by Jan. 13, that explains "what happened and why, and how is it that the EOIR databases were identified at this late date."

The late disclosure of contact information has also raised questions about whether the federal government may be holding onto more contact information.

"You know, I keep thinking, 'Well, OK, this time they've given us all the information,' and then it turns out that there are more families that have been separated, or more contact information," Gelernt said. "I suspect that there is still some more information out there. We hope we get that soon. We hope we don't have to wait for a Biden administration to get every last piece of data that might help us. But we'll have to wait and see."

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U.S. Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian, representing the Trump administration in Friday's hearing, said federal officials were not intentionally withholding the information and had "made a strong and comprehensive" effort last year to compile it.

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But she conceded that the recently released information held by EOIR had not been included in that initial effort — despite ongoing requests from plaintiffs' attorneys — and that more information may be forthcoming.

"I want us to move forward now. I think we have identified ... not just the EOIR database, but other databases," Fabian said, noting that she had a "couple additional spreadsheets" of potential information that she's looking at, and is "hoping to send over."

Fabian also said part of the difficulty in gathering the information stemmed from her team's lack of clear understanding of the "processes" around the ongoing searches.

This contact information is vital in the ongoing efforts to locate separated families, especially as on-the-ground searches become more difficult.

In March, those searches screeched to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. While limited searches were able to resume in August, recent back-to-back hurricanes in the region have again hampered efforts, and potentially forced separated parents to relocate.

"We weren't even fully back up to 100% speed as of August. And now with the hurricanes, it's yet another challenge in this 2020 year that has just taken such a toll on the world, and prolonged the agony of these families," said Cathleen Caron, executive director of Justice in Motion, a migrant rights organization that has helped in the search for separated parents.

Caron said some of the lawyers and advocates working with her group in the region have lost their homes in the storms as well and are trying to get back on their feet to continue the searches.

"If it weren't for all of these complications, we'd be done by now," she said. "But ... 2020 just keeps being such a difficult year to find these parents and finish the searches and move on with the justice and healing part of the work."

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