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Hastily cobbled reunions of detained migrants & children marred by logistical fumbles

Two days after federal immigration officials missed a court-imposed deadline to reunite more than 100 children under the age of five with their immigrant parents after they were separated under a Trump administration policy, only about half of those children have been returned to their parents in a chaotic process marked by computer malfunctions, logistical problems and administrative failures. 

Federal officials missed a Tuesday deadline set by U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who ruled in late June that the government had 14 days to return "tender age" or children younger than 5, and 30 days to reunite all other children with their parents. 

In a status report issued Thursday to the federal court in San Diego, lawyers representing the U.S. government said that of 103 children who were split from their parents as part of the "zero tolerance" policy issued in May by the Trump administration, 57 had been unified by 7 a.m. on Thursday morning. 

The status report filed by both sides shows a confusing situation, marked by logistical issues, missed deadlines, and computer problems, highlighting the government's lack of preparation to comply with the judge's orders. 

Early Thursday morning, the Department of Homeland Security released a joint statement from DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, noting that at 7 a.m. EST, 57 children had been returned to their parents. This includes at least one child who was flown from New York to Louisiana on a flight that landed at 6 a.m. on Thursday. 

Family reunification happened at several sites across the United States during the week, and it's possible that either Tucson or Phoenix could be the site of future reunions under the guidance of Catholic Community Services. 

"There is no excuse for the Trump administration’s missed deadline. Children are suffering because of it. The government must get these families back together," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of a detained woman whose daughter was taken away.

The judge's decision came as part of that lawsuit, originally launched by a Congolese woman, identified only as Ms. L. in court documents, who said that officials took her daughter from her even while she was seeking asylum — violating U.S. and international law, the suit says. 

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The suit accelerated when it became clear that following an announcement from Attorney General Sessions on May 7, Trump administration officials would carry out a "zero tolerance" policy against people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. When a family was picked up by officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, mothers and fathers would be handed over to the Justice Department for prosecution while their children would be taken away to facilities maintained by Health and Human Services. 

From May 5 to June 9,  HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that 2,342 children were separated from their parents by U.S. officials. 

From joint status document filed on Thursday, of the remaining 46 children under 5 years old,  12 children could not be reunited because their parents were deported, 10 other parents were still in criminal custody, and 23 had either "apparently dropped out of the class or are not eligible for reunification at this time, either because they had criminal histories, evidence of abuse, communicable diseases, or they were not actually the parents," plaintiffs wrote. 

Government lawyers said that 11 children were excluded from the order their parents had a criminal backgrounds, including one who had warrant for murder in Guatemala, others who had outstanding warrants in the United States, one who had 2 DUI convictions in the U.S., and another who had "significant criminal history." 

Seven other children were included in the court order because the adults they with traveled to the United States were not their parents. This included two women who are actually grandmothers; one man who said he is the child's uncle, not the father; and two adults who failed DNA tests. 

Two other children were kept by U.S. officials, one because their parent was accused of child abuse, and another because a background check showed that an adult male in the household has "an active warrant for aggravated criminal sexual assault of a 10-year-old female," a federal lawyer said. 

One parent is in ICE custody with a "communicable disease." 

Bizarrely, another child may be a U.S. citizen, but the unidentified female child was separated in 2015 when "her parent was arrested on an outstanding warrant by the U.S. Marshals Service," and U.S. officials cannot locate him. "Unless the parent is located, HHS will provide care and seek placement for the child using its ordinary programs and procedures," officials said. 

Federal officials said that they could give the ACLU documents as requested because compiling that information "took a significant amount of time" and agents decided to spend that time "facilitating reunification" and that producing such work "at the same level of detail" was not "operationally feasible under the current timeframes." 

They instead asked to meet with the plaintiffs and provide an updated list on Friday. 

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In the statement from DHS, the agency said that "dedicated teams" had worked "tirelessly to ensure the safety of Ms. L. class members." 

"Throughout the reunification process our goal has been the well-being of the children and returning them to a safe environment," wrote the agency. "Of course, there remains a tremendous amount of hard work and similar obstacles facing our teams in reuniting the remaining families. The Trump administration does not approach this mission lightly, and we intend to continue our good faith efforts to reunify families." 

"Certain facts remain: The American people gave this administration a mandate to end the lawlessness at the border, and President Trump is keeping his promise to do exactly that," said Nielsen. "Our message has been clear all along: Do not risk your own life or the life of your child by attempting to enter the United States illegally. Apply lawfully and wait your turn.

Ms. L. and her child, identified as S.S. were separated when they lawfully presented themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, and remained separated for nearly five months, said Sabaw. 

As the deadline came, 20 children were held back because parental verifications were not complete by the deadline and were then flown on late night or early morning flights. One child was placed on a flight at 9:55 p.m. on Tuesday, and then arrived on Wednesday morning at 5:35 a.m. Another child flew out at 10:30 p.m., and was reunited with their parent at 12:30 a.m.

HHS officials complained that the court's "truncated process" required the government to release children that the agency had "not yet completed parental verification" and had not been able to complete background checks on other adults living in the household. 

This causes a "good faith concern about parentage and risk to the child," they wrote. 

ACLU lawyers responded with a request for remedies, noting that they had been unable to confirm criminal convictions make the parents a "danger to their children" or merely not class members as part of the ACLU's lawsuit. 

They also noted that there was "no independent verification that these 58 parents have in fact been reunited with their children, and that federal officials did meet a promise to "provide Plaintiffs’ counsel with notice of the time and place for each reunification, so that Plaintiffs’ counsel could arrange for private and NGO service providers to assist the families and verify reunification." 

"This did not happen. Defendants did not provide specific time and place information for a single Class Member. Instead, Defendants only provided a general prediction about how most Class Members would be reunified." 

This lack of communication caused significant delays, including one woman who was left "alone at a bus stop with her children, one of whom was six months old." Another parent was shuttled from ICE facilities in New Jersey and Michigan and ICE "refused access to to his counsel." When it came time for his reunification with his child, "ICE did not allow his counsel to be present." Another parent was held for hours even when her children were ready for release because a "computer malfunction" kept ICE officials from processing her. At the end of the day, "ICE officers ceased their attempts and told their mother that she would be sent back to detention without her children." 

ACLU lawyers also noted that parents had been charged thousands for the "costs of reunifications" including charges for airfare and DNA testing. 

One parent was told to wire $1,900 to Western Union to pay for reunification, another nearly bought plane tickets. 

"It is not acceptable for Defendants to make compliance with this Court’s injunction contingent on Class Members paying thousands of dollars to reunify with their children," wrote the ACLU's lawyers.

To keep the government from missing the next deadline, the ACLU asked the federal government to provide a list for the remaining children before Monday, and complete all background checks by Thursday, July 19. The ACLU also demanded the government provide daily updates, and inform all parents 24 hours in advance of the time and place  of reunifications. 

ACLU lawyers also asked that the government establish a fund for professional mental health counseling to help treat children "who are suffering from severe trauma as a result of their forcible separation." 

The court will host another status conference on Friday. 

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TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Girls from Guatemala waiting to enter the U.S. at the Nogales Port of Entry in July.

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