The Trump administration, under order to quickly reunify families that have been separated at the border, is moving ahead — somewhat reluctantly — with a new, streamlined plan to bring together the roughly 2,500 remaining children and their parents in order to meet the court-imposed deadline.
The plan, outlined in a filing Friday afternoon in San Diego federal court, aims to process about 200 children age 5 and older per day, with a rollout this weekend. The logistics include moving parents currently detained in immigration custody to one of six to eight facilities where they will be further vetted to verify parentage, undergo a criminal background check and be interviewed by an investigator.
Children will then be moved to the facility for reunification within 24 to 48 hours, and the family will be released to immigration custody.
The locations of the reunions were not specified Friday, nor did the government say whether these families would remain in immigration custody or be released on parole.
The new plan is more compressed than the previous procedure and designed to process a much larger group of people in a short amount of time. The government has until July 26 to complete all reunifications.
This past week, the government scrambled to comply with a July 10 deadline to reunify children under age 5, a process marked by confusion and chaos.
Of the 103 children in that age group, only 57 were reunited, and several past the deadline.
Those families were released into the community on parole, to be monitored by GPS ankle bracelets, pending the outcome of their immigration cases.
The remaining infants and toddlers were determined to be ineligible for reunification for various reasons, including having a parent with a criminal record. Twelve have a parent who was already deported, launching a multinational search effort that remains underway.
The same circumstances will apply to the older kids, as well, but in much larger numbers.
While the government said Friday it was prepared to immediately launch its new plan for the much larger group, it expressed deep concern that the vetting process needed to meet the deadline was inadequate and would probably put many children at risk.
Sabraw had ruled that the government’s existing detailed, time-consuming background check was designed for nonparent sponsors applying to care for an unaccompanied minor who crossed the border alone, and was not necessary in this circumstance in which parents were separated from their children.
He ordered a streamlined vetting process where appropriate, including waiving requirements for DNA verification on all parents and background checks on all other adults living in the same household.
Authorities should be able to determine parent-child relationships through documents or observation when able, and can still perform DNA testing when concerns linger, he said.
But Christopher Meekins, a deputy assistant secretary at Health and Human Services, pointed to troubling examples the agency found during background checks under the longer process in the under-5 age group. That included a few cases where adults lied about parentage and one case of an adult living in the household who had a child sex abuse warrant.
Meekins acknowledged in an affidavit that the streamlined vetting approach will make reunions happen faster. “At the same time, however, that process will likely result in the placing of children with adults who falsely claimed to be their parents or into potentially abusive environments,” he wrote. “While I am fully committed to complying with this Court’s order, I do not believe that the placing of children into such situations is consistent with the mission of HHS or my core values.”
In court Friday, Sabraw held to his position that parentage does not be 100% scientifically verified by DNA.
“There’s a lot of common sense that’s intuitive,” Sabraw said.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt agreed, saying authorities should not discount observed behavior as evidence, such as “if a 2-year-old is clinging to a person saying ‘Mommy, mommy’ all the time.”
Gelernt said at least one parent has also come forward saying he presented papers showing he was the adoptive father of a young child, but he was turned away as ineligible. Department of Justice attorney Sarah Fabian said she would look into the matter.
On Friday, the judge also ruled on a number of requests by the ACLU to increase oversight of the reunification process.
Starting Friday and continuing through the weekend, the government is to provide the ACLU with a list of eligible parents in ICE custody and their separated children. Parentage for that group should be determined by Thursday.
After hearing reports of some parents who were told by authorities they needed to pay for DNA tests or flights to reunite with their children, the judge issued an order prohibiting the government from charging for such services.
The judge also ordered the government to provide advocates a 12-hour heads up as to when and where each reunification will happen, so families can be provided services if needed.
“So much of this is common sense and common courtesy,” Sabraw said, emphasizing that the task before them is not impossible given the amount of children involved and resources of the government.
“This process shouldn’t be anything mysterious. It should be transparent and easy to do.”
Sabraw did, however, decline a request by the ACLU to halt the potential deportations of parents with final removal orders who might be reunited with children as soon as this weekend.
Gelernt said he was concerned that parents would not have enough time to meet with an advocate assigned to their children and determine if there are any asylum claims to pursue.
But the judge left open the possibility of emergency filings over the weekend to address the issue if necessary.
Meanwhile, in Texas, civil rights lawyers said Friday that they’ve identified one more parent who was separated from a child at the border earlier this week — despite Sabraw’s injunction and an executive order that calls for an end to the practice.
The 24-year-old Guatemalan father crossed illegally at the border with a birth certificate identifying a 2-year-old girl as his daughter last week, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
But Border Patrol agents at the McAllen processing station doubted the record’s authenticity and split them up, lawyers said.
Lawyers said they verified the birth certificate with the Guatemalan consulate and obtained photos of the two together from his family in Guatemala.
But a Department of Homeland Security official said the separation was valid under a law designed to protect children from human trafficking.
According to DHS, the father later admitted that the girl was actually his niece and that he had obtained a fake document from a smuggler in Guatemala. He also advised agents that the mother lived in Georgia and he was delivering the child to her, but when agents contacted the supposed mother, the woman “had difficulty providing basic biographical information on the child,” the official stated.
Los Angeles Times writer Jazmine Ulloa contributed to this report.