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‘Unacceptable’: Judge rejects government’s plan for reuniting remaining separated families

What is the plan to reunite hundreds of parents, many already deported from the U.S., with their children who remain in custody of U.S. immigration officials? The Trump administration and the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday submitted widely divergent ideas to the court. Amna Nawaz talks with Michelle Brane of the Migrant Rights and Justice on Program at the Women's Refugee Commission.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now an update on the status of immigrant parents and children separated at the U.S. border in recent months.

    Yesterday, the Trump administration and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted widely divergent plans to the court on how to reunite hundreds of parents, many of them already deported from the United States, with their children who remain in the care and custody of U.S. immigration officials.

    Here today, Amna Nawaz has been monitoring a federal court hearing out in California. And she continues her reporting on the separated families.

    Hello, Amna.

    And I want to ask you about that.

    But, first, just within the last hour or so, there has been a ruling on another immigration matter by a different federal judge, so bring us up to speed on that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right. This is about DACA.

    This is just moments ago. A district judge in D.C. ruled that the Trump administration's decision to end DACA was unlawful, and he ordered that it be restored soon.

    Now, DACA, of course, is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It was put into place by President Obama to shield hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation.

    And, basically, President Trump has always said it's illegal. He ended it back in September. The judge today called that decision arbitrary and capricious. He is giving them 20 days to put it back into place, and also gives them time to reply and to appeal if they choose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we will see.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will see what they do.

    So let's go back to the reason we called you here tonight.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been following this story for days and weeks even.

    Amna, this was — this is two different filings, as we said, one from the government, one from the ACLU. The judge has been hearing it.

    Where do we stand right now?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, overall, when it comes to separated families, we have to remember there are still several hundred children who are waiting to be reunited with their families and are still in U.S. government care and custody.

    The government has been making steady progress. Right? They started with about 2,700 children. They have moved over 2,000 out of their care and custody, but this next group that the judge has focused on, this is going to be tougher.

    These are parents who are either released into the U.S. or parents who are deported or voluntarily left. So, we're talking about, about 500 parents for whom the government doesn't necessarily know where they are and doesn't necessarily have a way to contact them. That's going to complicate getting them back with their children significantly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, they have submitted these plans. How are they going to pull this off? What is going on at this point?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, at this point, in the hearing today, the judge was addressing the plans that they had submitted.

    The government, sort of surprisingly to a lot of people, really tried to push a lot of the responsibility to the ACLU, said, go find the parents, ask them if they want their kids back, and then let us know. We will reunify them.

    The judge today basically said, I don't think so. He said, look, this is 100 percent the government's responsibility. We're here because of your separation policy. You have to own this moving forward. He called their plan unacceptable.

    And he reminded them, look, for every parent you fail to find, you're going to have a permanently orphaned child.

    So, I asked an expert earlier today how they move forward. A short time ago, I spoke with Michelle Brane. She's the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission. She's an attorney who has long worked on immigrants and human rights issues. And she's been working with the ACLU on these reunification efforts.

    And I asked her about the government taking the lead moving forward.

  • Michelle Brane:

    You know, throughout this process, we have seen the government failing to take responsibility over and over and over again. So, it's not surprising.

    I'm glad the judge made that very clear. And I hope that they step up. But, throughout this process, it's been required step by step that the judge tell them what needs to be done and by what date.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So these two groups we're talking about now as the focus for unification, parents who have left either voluntarily or because they were deported, they are released into the U.S.

    How much contact information, location information, how much does that actually have about these parents?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Well, that is really the question, and that is what we're asking the government to tell us.

    We think that, at least in some of these cases, they have some information. We are aware that, in some cases, children have been speaking to their parents even after their parents were removed, and so that would indicate that there is a way to communicate with those parents.

    But we have to wait and see. I don't know if that's 20 out of the almost 500 or if that's closer to 400 out of the 500.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And tell me about that lack of information, though. How much more complicated is the process moving forward because of the status of these parents?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Well, you know, these parents fled their country in the first place because they were being persecuted, they were fleeing violence, they were looking to save their children's lives.

    So it's not going to be easy to find them back in their home countries. And that's for several reasons. We don't know where they are. We don't know if they went back to the same place they fled or the last place we know of.

    We don't know if they are in hiding. We don't know if they're en route to come back the try to find their children again. And when we go in there, there's attorneys and nonprofits just citizens who want to help who are ready to go help to find these parents.

    But these are dangerous places. And so we can't have people just running in, in large groups looking for people who may be in hiding. This really has to be done with care.

    And that's why I think it's really important that the government take some responsibility and step up and help.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You raise the interesting point, of course, that a lot of parents fled dangerous conditions in the first place with their kids before they were separated.

    One of the questions the government wants answered is, do you even want your child reunited with you?

    Can you give me a sense of how many parents have already decided or may decide, you know what, I may have had to leave, but I don't want my child brought back to me, because I know they're safer in the U.S.?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Right.

    That may be the case for some of these parents. And it's really important that we actually give the parents the opportunity to express that view, that desire in a context in which they can do that safely and reasonably.

    Many of these parents were forced to make decisions about whether to leave or not leave while being detained, while not knowing what was happening to their children, and very often not even knowing what they were agreeing to.

    And what was often presented to them was, if you want your child back, you need to sign this paper in order to do that, the quickest way possible.

    And any parent in that circumstance is going to feel pressure or the desire to see their child above all else, so a lot of people signed those documents.

    What wasn't presented to many of these families was the option of staying and fighting the case themselves. These parents in many, many cases also have asylum claims. And I believe that many of them withdrew their claims thinking it was the only way to be reunified with their child.

    And, in those cases, I think that they should be able to come back to the United States and pursue that application.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How confident are you that these hundreds of parents whom the government is still trying the find in the first place will be or could be reunited with their children again?

  • Michelle Brane:

    You know, I think that there's no question that we risk having some parents we never find and that some will say, as you indicated, I prefer my child to have a chance at safety in the United States, even if I can't be with them.

    But I don't think we're ready at this point to sort of throw up our hands and say, well, many of these just won't be found, and that's the way it is.

    As the judge indicated, the government has a responsibility to try to find these parents, and, hopefully, we will find most, if not all of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Michelle Brane, thank you for your time.

  • Michelle Brane:

    You're welcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important perspective for us to hear.

    And, Amna, I can't let you go without asking you about little Sofi, the young girl who you met at the border weeks ago with her grandmother…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … separated from her family.

    Where does that stand?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, today, Judy, marks six weeks since 3-year-old Sofi was separated from her family. She remains in U.S. government custody today.

    Here is some information we can share, though, that we haven't been able to share before. Sofi's family, including her mother, who is working to get her back, they're all in California. Sofi remains in a U.S. — a federally contracted shelter in Pennsylvania.

    Now, in the coming days, Sofi's mother, with the support of a volunteer group called Immigrant Families Working Together, she's actually planning to go to Pennsylvania to try to apply some pressure and to get her daughter back.

    We talk to her mother quite regularly, and she tells us, every time she used to talk to Sofi, Sofi would cry, and she would beg to come to get picked up, and she would ask when her mother was going to come.

    When we spoke to her yesterday, she said Sofi doesn't do that anymore. And she worries Sofi has grown numb, or that she's given up, or that she's grown accustomed to life in the shelter and life without her family.

    So she's continuing to work through the government reunification process. She's submitting her documents. She's following the rules as they're laid out.

    But she says she wants to see Sofi. So she's going to Pennsylvania, and she says, when she leaves, she hopes that it will be with her daughter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's just a 3-year-old girl away from her mother, her family for six weeks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's just hard to comprehend.

    Amna, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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