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What happens once the government doesn’t comply with the family reunification deadline?

President Trump's policy on separated immigrant families is under serious pressure from the courts, with two federal judges telling the administration that it can not hold families in custody indefinitely and that it must abide by an order to reunite dozens of children with parents by today. Amna Nawaz talks with Lee Gelernt of the ACLU's Immigrants’ Rights Project.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's policy on how the administration deals with separated families is under serious pressure from the courts right now.

    In the past 24 hours, two federal judges have ruled that it must change the way it is operating with these migrant families.

    Yesterday, a judge in Los Angeles told the Department of Justice the government could not hold families in custody indefinitely.

    Then, today, as Amna Nawaz tells us, a judge in San Diego told the government it must abide by an order to reunite dozens of children with their parents by the end of the day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the Trump administration to reunite nearly 3,000 children. And, today, he told government lawyers — quote — "These are firm deadlines. They're not aspirational goals."

    The judge ordered kids under 5 to be reunited by today. There are more than 100 of them. Only four had been reunited by a hearing earlier today. The administration told the judge it's on track to reunite just 38 by day's end.

    The ACLU brought the lawsuit in San Diego prompting this reunification push.

    Lee Gelernt is the deputy director of its Immigrants' Rights Project and was their leader attorney in court today.

    For the record, we invited two key departments, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, to appear tonight. Our invitation was declined.

    Lee Gelernt, thank you so much for being with us tonight.

    I want to ask you now. Today is obviously that deadline for kids under 5 to be reunited, which we know has been missed. We're speaking at about 6:30 Eastern, 3:30 your time on the West Coast. How many children in that group under the age of 5 have been reunited as of now?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Yes, we're still waiting for an up-to-the-minute tally.

    The government today walked into court and promised that only 38 would be reunited by the end of the day. The judge — that didn't sit well with the judge. He said, I want all 65 — 63 families who are eligible for reunification to be reunited by the end of the day, and if the government cannot do it, he wants an explanation in writing on Thursday, wants to see us back in court on Friday, and asks us what relief we want from him if the government misses the deadline.

    So there will be kids reunited today. We hope all 65 will be reunited by the end of the day, but it did not look promising, and that's unfortunate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The numbers are a little confusing here. We want to explain this a little bit.

    That 102 number was all the children under the age of 5 who they were working on trying to reunite. But the government whittled that down a little bit to those who they believe are eligible. They ran background checks on families and potential sponsors.

    They found, they said today, eight parents who had serious criminal histories. That then precluded them from being reunified with their children.

    I know you and others are pushing for a faster reunification process, but you're not asking them to shortcut that process, are you?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    We're asking them to eliminate unnecessary steps.

    The process the government had been using, which the judge rejected today, was when kids come and they are genuinely unaccompanied, and some distant relative or somebody else comes forward and says, well, I will take the kid.

    Well, of course, you want extensive investigation. This is very different. The government forcibly took these children from their parents, and we're just asking that they be given back to their parents.

    So there will be criminal checks and there will be verification of parentage, but all the other steps the government was taking were simply not appropriate. Those were steps when some distant relative comes forward, and they have to fill out a whole sponsorship application.

    So there were individuals eliminated today based on criminal conviction or other things. But there are a lot of children under 5, little children, who have been away from their parents for months and months. And the government said, well, we're only going to reunite about 38 of them by the end of the day.

    Again, that didn't sit well with the judge. As you said in the introduction, he said, these are not aspirational, that the government better get it done by the end of the day, and, if they don't, he wants to hear more about it on Thursday and Friday.

    So we have mixed emotions today. We are thrilled that many of these young children will be reunited. But, for this ruling, they wouldn't have been reunited. But we are deeply concerned that all the children haven't been — won't be reunited.

    And the other thing is, this is just the 100 or so under 5. We have 2,000 to 3,000 more children 5 and older who have not been reunited. That deadline is coming up quickly, July 26. And we have real concerns that the government is going to meet that deadline.

    What we are pleased with is that the judge has made clear he is going to stay on top of the government, hold as many hearings as he needs to, require as many status reports as he needs to. And that's ultimately, I think, what is going to be critical in getting this process done.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But let me ask you about recourse in this case.

    Now, the judge asked you in a status hearing today, what remedy are you seeking? If the government doesn't comply, what do you want to see happen?

  • Lee Gelernt:


    I think, for us, it's a little bit early to figure that out. We're going to wait, talk about it amongst our team, and see exactly what the government says about why they missed the deadline, if, in fact, they do miss the deadline.

    Obviously, sanctions are one possibility. It may be that the judge has to stay on top of them even more. We're going to try and figure that out. Right now, we're just hoping that these reunifications get done.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the many hundreds of more children over the age of 5. That deadline is coming up on the 26th.

    If the government has already missed this deadline, it will likely roll on for who knows how long, is it more unlikely they won't make the next one? And when can families expect to be reunified with these children?

  • Lee Gelernt:


    What we're hoping for is that now the government has figured out some basic process for doing these reunifications. It's also, I think, critical that the judge now has made it clear he is going to stay on top of them.

    So, we're hoping the reunifications of the children 5 and older go better than what has happened now. Can I promise you that there's not going to be some children who are not going to reunited by the deadline? No.

    But we are hopeful. And I think we will stay on top of the government. We have asked for a list of every single child who has been separated from their parents, so we can mobilize all the many volunteers and advocates and NGOs and faith-based groups to help.

    I think it's an enormous task, as the judge said. But, on the other hand, it's a mess the government made. They really need to fix it. We are more than happy to help in any way we can.

    But the government needs to dedicate as many resources as they need to, to get it done. They cannot have these little children sit for any longer than necessary all by themselves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, thank you for your time.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And before we go, an update on Sofi (ph), the 3-year-old girl whose story we have been following since she was separated from her family after legally crossing the U.S. border from Mexico last month to seek asylum.

    How does the court order to reunite affect her? Well, according to what the government has said, it doesn't. Sofi, we believe, doesn't qualify for today's deadline because it only applies to children separated from parents.

    Sofi was brought across by her grandmother, her caregiver and, the family says, her legal guardian in Mexico. So, Sofi's family continues to work through the normal reunification process, submitting paperwork, undergoing background checks, and waiting for a fingerprinting appointment, now 10 days away.

    Sofi, meanwhile, remains in a shelter hundreds of miles away, where she's been for the last 18 days. The family has no timeline for when she will be released.

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