Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar insisted to reporters on a conference call on Thursday that his agency was ready to meet the looming deadline imposed by federal courts for reuniting the thousands of immigrant children in his custody with their parents.
But later that same evening, the Trump administration asked the California judge overseeing the case for an extension, claiming the tight timeline is putting them at risk of violating their “statutory obligations to ensure the safety of children before transferring them out of HHS custody.”
The government is specifically claiming in a new filing ahead of Friday afternoon’s status conference in the case that they do not have enough time to verify parent-child relationships “using DNA swab testing” and lack the time for ICE to conduct criminal background checks on the parents.
Generally, the legal bar for separating children from parents is extremely high, involving a finding that “the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.” But after separating thousands of children absent that finding, the government is currently making the opposite argument — that they must clear a high bar, that it claims the court set in its order, by proving the parents are not dangerous or unfit before reunification can happen.
Now, the Trump administration is petitioning the court to be allowed off the hook for blowing past the 30-day deadline for reunification “in cases where parentage cannot be confirmed quickly,” claiming that “potential traffickers” could be making “false claims of parentage” but providing no documentation of this happening.
Repeatedly, in court filings and on Thursday’s conference call, the government has suggested without evidence that the immigrant parents attempting to get their children back are not who they claim to be, calling them “putative parents.”
In addition to conducting DNA testing — which has raised serious legal and privacy concerns — the government says they are “observing communications or interactions between putative class members and children” to determine whether they are genuinely related.
In the new court filing, the government is also seeking to limit the number of families eligible for reunification. While the court’s order included no dates and covers all families who were separated by the Trump administration, the Justice Department is requesting that only those separated after March 9 be counted — the date the class action lawsuit was filed.
The government is also asking the court to leave out of the ruling parents who have already been deported, citing “the complexities involved in locating individuals who have been removed, determining whether they wish to be reunified with their child, and facilitating such a reunification outside of the United States.”
Though the government has not revealed how many parents have been deported while their children remain in custody in the U.S., an analysis of federal data by Syracuse University researchers estimates that number to be in the hundreds.
Read the government’s new filing below: