The Trump administration reported to a California federal judge on Friday afternoon that as of 7 a.m. that morning, 450 of the 2,551 migrant children older than age 5 who were taken from their parents have been reunited.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who previously took the government to task for missing reunification deadlines and making disingenuous arguments about the children’s welfare, gushed over the “great progress” made so far.
“The reunifications are occurring very rapidly, which is good,” he said. “It appears that this process is working on time and on track. A big block will reunified in a timely manner. I am very impressed with the effort being made. It really does appear there has been great progress.”
Yet the Trump administration also reported to Judge Sabraw that 37 children have “not yet been matched” with the parent from whom they were removed, and said they did not know how many of the hundreds of parents released by ICE into the U.S. interior they have not been able to locate, saying only that they believe it is “a large number.” Administration lawyers similarly could not answer how many of the reunited families are being detained together and how many have been released on parole.
In contrast to Judge Sabraw’s enthusiasm, Justice Department attorney August Flentje sounded a note of caution in Friday’s hearing about the government’s ability to meet the court’s deadline in less than a week.
“The numbers are growing each day significantly, but there’s a lot of work left to do to get this done,” he said. “I think there will be some complicated issues arising in the next week, with cases where it’s difficult to track down the parents.”
Lee Gelernt with the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the national class action case representing the separated parents, pleaded during Friday’s hearing for the Trump administration to let the ACLU assist in the search for these seemingly lost parents.
“We ask that the government tell us as soon as possible which parents they’re having trouble finding, so that we don’t wait until the deadline to learn that they haven’t been able to reach people,” he said. “It’s possible that over the weekend that we could help find some of those parents who were released from ICE custody.”
In a filing to the court earlier on Thursday, the Trump administration argued that more than a third of the migrant children in its custody are ineligible for reunification, because the parent either has a criminal record, is undergoing “further evaluation,” or has waived their right to be reunified.
“Parents can make an election: do I want to leave with my child or leave without my child? During the HHS interview, a number of them have said no [to reunification],” Flentje asserted on Friday. “A child may have an independent asylum claim, and there’s a form where parents can designate a sponsor for their child.”
The ACLU has been skeptical of the administration’s claims on this front, and argued in court on Friday for the right to speak with the 136 parents who allegedly opted to be deported before being reunited with their child.
“We would like to know how many of those 136 still remain in the country and how many have been removed,” Gelernt said. “We had hoped to talk each to them about whether they were fully aware of what is going on when they made the momentous decision to not even see their child again.”
Sabraw agreed that it was important to know whether or not the parents “made an informed decision,” but said he wanted to focus first on ensuring the administration reunites the 1606 children they have deemed eligible for reunification before hearing arguments about the families they have deemed ineligible.
The two sides will face off again in court on Tuesday afternoon, two day’s prior to the deadline, to update Judge Sabraw on the reunification progress.