The Trump administration said Thursday that it had separated hundreds more children from their parents after illegal border crossings than had previously been revealed and that none of the families had yet been reunited.
About 100 of the children are younger than 5, Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, whose agency has custody of the children, told reporters on a conference call. The total number of children taken from their parents may be as high as nearly 3,000, he said. Previously, Azar and department officials had set the number at just more than 2,000.
Azar said the new numbers reflected reports from different immigration agencies and a review by hand by himself and others of case files of about 11,800 immigrant children in the agency’s care. About 80% of those children arrived at the border without parents; most are teenage boys.
Azar sharply objected to court orders that have directed the government to reunite families and have limited how long officials can hold children in immigrant detention. He warned that families may remain in the custody of immigration authorities for long periods, including those claiming asylum.
“As broken as our immigration system is, we still want to treat people as well as humanly possible going through this very difficult situation," he said.
Federal District Judge Dana M. Sabraw in San Diego has given the government until Tuesday to reunite children younger than 5 with their parents. The judge gave the administration until about the end of the month to reunite all families.
“Under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property,” the judge wrote last month. “Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process.”
The parents mostly have raised claims for legal asylum in the United States. President Trump has ordered that they be kept locked up while their cases wend their way through immigration courts, a process that often can take months or years.
Until recently, adults with credible asylum claims were typically released, often with ankle bracelets or other electronic monitoring systems, and allowed to live in the U.S. until their hearing date.
The new data are the most specific to come from Health and Human Services as the administration has struggled to come up with a plan to reunite families. Azar has said the only way parents can quickly be reunited with their children is to drop their claims for asylum in the United States and agree to be deported.
The separations stem from the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that the administration began fully implementing in early May. Under the policy, officials said they would hold all adults who crossed the border illegally and charge them with misdemeanors. Because children can’t be placed in adult jails, the misdemeanor charges became grounds for splitting up the families.
Amid a fierce backlash, Trump said on June 20 that the administration would end the practice. Instead, the administration now wants to hold families together indefinitely in immigration detention. That could conflict with a 1997 legal case known as the Flores settlement, which has been interpreted as limiting to 20 days the time a child can be forced to spend in immigration detention.
Last week, administration lawyers told federal District Judge Dolly M. Gee in Los Angeles, who has supervised the Flores settlement for years, that she should interpret the agreement to allow the indefinite detention of families while their asylum claims are processed.
On the call with reporters, Azar criticized what he called conflicting court rulings, including the latest ordering his agency to reunite families, saying the “extreme” deadline set by Judge Sabraw would further make it difficult for the agency to conduct its usual vetting process to confirm that adults claiming to be a child’s parents actually are.
To speed the reunification process, Azar said, officials are moving parents of children younger than 5 to facilities “extremely close” to where the children are being held.
Repeating the rhetoric of immigration hard-liners, he said Congress needed to fix the immigration laws and blamed parents for making dangerous journeys north and entering the country illegally.
“I wouldn’t get to stay with my children if I were in prison,” he said of the separations.
For now, Azar said, the department has had to narrow its review process, which includes using DNA testing to confirm parentage. More than 100 additional case managers and about 230 additional personnel have been brought on to help with the reunifications, including people from emergency and disaster response teams, he said.
The department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which shelters migrant children, was designed to take in unaccompanied minors and has programs for young survivors of smuggling, trafficking and gang violence, he said.
“It was not designed to track the circumstances in which a child came into our custody, which is why it has taken time,” Azar said.
Health and Human Services officials have said they know the identity and location of every child in their custody and that each has been placed in a safe environment. In court filings and interviews, however, parents have described struggles to stay in touch with their children. Some children at centers have had bed bugs and lice.
Civil rights groups and immigration lawyers called the administration’s admission of the higher numbers of detained children deeply troubling.
“Since the Trump administration began separating families systematically at the border, the American people have been kept in the dark,” said Efrén C. Olivares, racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Advocates and lawyers have been forced to fight tooth and nail to reach their clients and confirm their whereabouts.”
In a statement issued Thursday, the American College of Physicians denounced the administration’s position, calling family detention an unacceptable alternative and traumatic to children.
The physicians group “continues to oppose family separation because of the significant, life-long, negative health impact on children and their family members,” said Dr. Ana María López, the organization’s president. “The health impact of prolonged family detention would be similar.”
The administration has justified family separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration. The number of families apprehended at the border has only slightly dipped since the zero-tolerance policy was announced, however, from nearly 9,700 in April to more than 9,400 in June, according to statistics released Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Former immigration and Health and Human Services officials said federal agencies were probably scrambling to connect parents and children across agencies that are strictly compartmentalized and have no obligation to follow up with one another after they have handed people over.
“It’s almost like the game of hot potato — they’re your responsibility,” said Alonzo Peña, retired Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director. “I don’t see that there are a lot of policies on the care and custody of children that cuts across all these agencies, Border Patrol, ICE, HHS.”
Maria Cancian, a former senior advisor and deputy assistant secretary at Health and Human Services, said the typical process the department followed to reunite children with parents who have been released from detention isn’t challenging.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement “has reunited 5,000 children in any given month,” she said. But “this is a very different situation, not part of ORR’s mandate because it is related more to immigration enforcement.”