The Trump administration has offered little indication of how it will reunite thousands of children separated from their families under the president’s immigration policies, heightening concern that the government could fail to comply with a federal judge’s order to expedite the process.
Administration officials have been unwilling to say whether they collected information necessary to reunite parents and children before separating them. They also won’t say whether more children have been taken from their families since President Donald Trump signed an order June 20 that he said would stop the practice.
In a conference call Tuesday, officials even declined to provide concrete numbers on how many children still needed to be returned to family members, saying the situation was fluid. A spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the division of the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for the children, said that the agency would only report the total number of immigrant children it’s detaining, which includes a larger number who came across the border alone.
“While we understand the interest in detailed breakdowns of this information, our mission has been and remains to provide every minor transferred to HHS, regardless of the circumstances, with quality and age-appropriate care and a speedy and safe release to a sponsor,” Kenneth Wolfe, the ACF spokesman said in an email. “Currently, there are 11,869 minors in our care.”
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The figure is “constantly changing,” he said. “Every day, minors are referred to our care and released from our care to parents, close relatives or suitable sponsors.”
Public outrage over the separations led Trump to retreat last week from the “zero tolerance” policy toward unlawful border crossings Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April. Under the approach, parents and other caregivers apprehended after crossing the border were arrested and jailed, and the government placed their children with HHS. The administration is now exploring the construction of camps on military bases and new detention centers to house undocumented migrant families together.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw on Tuesday ordered the Trump administration to return immigrant children younger than five to their parents within two weeks. Children five and older must be reunited within 30 days. He also ordered the government to provide for communications between detained caregivers and their children and not to deport adults without their kids.
“The unfortunate reality is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property” cataloged by the government, Sabraw said in his order.
A White House spokeswoman on Thursday said Sabraw’s order endangers national security.
“The injunction must be removed immediately or we can’t keep the country safe,” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Wolfe said that “HHS continues to evaluate the impact of the District Court ruling.” The government has not appealed Sabraw’s order.
The process may be further complicated because the U.S. has already deported an unknown number of parents split from their children at the border. HHS has also said it must run background checks on parents before returning their children. Advocacy groups say it is nearly impossible to verify the government’s claim that it already returned more than 500 migrant children who were still in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol when their parents completed judicial proceedings.
That’s stoked concern that a lack of planning could leave the government unable to bring some families back together. It’s “a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” Sabraw wrote.
Government officials say they’re working as expeditiously as possible to reunite families.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers Tuesday that his department was applying new resources to the problem, and said that by using a “portal” maintained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement he was able to quickly locate immigrant children. He said allegations that children were missing were “false.”
“There is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located,” Azar told the Senate Finance Committee, adding that he could “within seconds find any child.”
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement over the weekend that it knows the location of all children in its custody, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has implemented an identification mechanism to ensure accurate tracking of family members.
But outside groups providing aid to immigrants say the administration is downplaying a brewing crisis.
The ICE identification system is “really vague” and it’s “not clear how parents, attorneys — anyone would utilize it” to track down specific children, according to Natalia Cornelio, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s criminal justice reform program. Aid groups have been given no information on how the system would be accessed, how it will work, when it will be online, and if it will include retroactive data, she said in a conference call Tuesday with reporters.
“This is a mechanism that should have existed before any parents were separated from their children,” Cornelio said.
Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit that would require the administration to prove it knows where children and parents are, make public their plan to reunite them, and give parents a way to contact their children within a week of separation. The administration has said its aim is for migrant children in custody to phone or Skype their parents at least twice a week.
Other factors are complicating the reunification effort.
The administration says that many of the children cannot be reunited until Congress passes new legislation that allows the administration to bypass a 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement. Federal courts have interpreted that policy to restrict detention of families to 20 days, meaning the federal government may wait until families complete immigration proceedings or receive asylum before reunifying them. White House officials have said they want Congress to address this issue in immigration legislation, but two bills have failed in the House in the last week.
“I cannot reunite them while the parents are in custody because the court order doesn’t allow kids to be with their parents for more than 20 days,” Azar said.
Azar said another complication is that his department must complete extensive vetting of parents to ensure they are not simply human traffickers pretending to be the parents of the separated children. Because unauthorized immigrants might not be carrying accurate paperwork, that process can be complicated.
The administration also says some adults voluntarily opted to return home after being separated from the children that accompanied them, further complicating reunification. But civil rights groups have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, in hopes it can ensure parents are not removed from the country without being allowed to decide the fate of their children.
The separation “wreaks havoc in the immigration system,” Denise Gilman, director of The University of Texas School of Law’s immigration clinic and a co-signer to the petition, said in a statement.
“Children are forced into separate proceedings apart from their parents and asked to speak for themselves in court while parents must fight for asylum from within remote immigration detention centers,” she said. “History will judge this moment harshly.”
Bloomberg’s Ben Winck and Jennifer Epstein contributed.