Eight weeks after the federal government missed deadlines to reunite more than 2,600 migrant children separated from their parents at the Southwest border, fewer than 200 children remain in U.S. care.
The majority of migrant families separated as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy rolled out earlier this year are no longer in government custody, either because they were reunited by court orders or because children were placed with other sponsors in the U.S.
“It all seems to be very positive news,” U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, who has been overseeing the reunification effort, said at Friday’s hearing.
However, the Trump administration has deported more than 400 parents to their home countries without their children. To date, according to the latest status update Thursday, only 26 children from this group have been reunited.
Sabraw, who has previously said family separations were an issue of the government’s own making, said he expected the number of resolved cases from this group will continue to rise, as both parties work to determine whether the parents want to reunite with their children. (The government has identified more than 100 parents who do not wish to reunify).
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit challenging the policy, has also pushed for greater attention to a handful of parents who have been barred from reunification with their children due to supposed “red flags” identified by the government.
At the end of Friday’s hearing, Sabraw said this case is on track to come “to some meaningful closure in the not-to-distant future.”
Here’s a look at what can happen next in the family reunification process.
What are the latest numbers?
The latest government data released Sept. 20 said that of the 2,654 separated migrant children, 2,151 have been “discharged,” meaning they were either reunified with their parents or released to another sponsor within the U.S. The government said 34 children have been discharged since last week’s update.
In the status update on Thursday, the government also said 182 children remain in government custody, under the care of Office of Refugee Resettlement, because their parents are deemed ineligible for reunification, or their cases are still under review, among other reasons. Here’s how the U.S. further breaks down this group:
- 141 parents are currently no longer in the U.S.
- Of the 41 parents within the U.S., six parents are “in other federal, state, or local custody.”
- Of this group, six children are under age 5.
There’s also another 220 children who are deemed no longer a part of the class-action lawsuit and remain in U.S. custody. This group includes:
- 113 children whose parents are no longer in the U.S. and do not wish to reunify. These cases have been confirmed by ACLU.
- 55 children who, upon further review, “were not separated from parents by DHS.”
- 31 children who cannot be reunified because the parent is “unfit or presents a danger to the child.”
- 21 children with parents in the U.S. who do not wish to be reunited.
Previously, the government said the new class of “unfit” parents who have been determined to pose a danger to their children was created following a final determination of each adult’s criminal history or fitness or the child’s safety. Both parties said they continue to meet and confer on the handful of affected cases.
The three-way calls appear to be working …
In the last week’s status update, there were dozens of parents who were removed from the U.S. who haven’t been successfully reached by telephone using contact information provided by the government. The ACLU and its network have been continuing to make contact with these parents to determine their intent to reunify with their children.
The government suggested setting up three-way phone calls with remaining parents, ORR case managers and the ACLU. “Put simply, where parents may not always be responsive to other individuals, they are responsive to the ORR shelter programs,” the government said in last week’s status update.
This week, the government said that this shift to three-way calls has resulted in at least 15 successful attempts at reaching parents in their home countries. The U.S. anticipates continuing using this method to reach these remaining parents to determine their intent to reunify with their children or not.
… but “communication breakdowns” appear to plague some of the remaining reunifications
The ACLU warned that there were several instances of “apparent communication breakdowns in the in-country reunification process.”
The organization said some parents, for example, weren’t informed of any changes to the travel plans and whereabouts for their child. As a result, the parents would travel a long way “only to have their child not arrive or where parents have not been given sufficient advance notice of an arriving child.” The child, the ACLU said, would then have to wait overnight or days before they’re finally reunified with their parent.
The ACLU requested that the government provide advance notice of the exact flight information and times related to each reunification planned in parents’ home countries.
A second chance at asylum
For weeks, there have been negotiations between U.S. officials and attorneys representing a group of separated parents who claimed in past personal declarations that they were not properly given an opportunity to make their asylum claim.
In past personal declarations filed in court, some parents said the trauma of the separation impeded their ability to pass the “credible fear” step of the asylum process. Others said they were coerced or misled into signing a form that waived their reunification rights.
Both parties said Friday that they’re working on compiling lists of individuals who wish to go forward with the procedures under the agreement, which is expected to be formally approved by the judge in the coming weeks.
Sabraw wanted to set a deadline for the draft papers for the agreement by next Thursday. The government said that deadline could be possible, “but may be a little tight” and warned that more time may be needed.
In the meantime, no “credible fear” hearings have taken place for this new round of asylum attempts.
The agreement, which Sabraw hopes to approve soon, will allow more than 1,000 migrant parents another attempt at asylum.