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Gov't reunites 1,442 children with parents in ICE custody

Hours before a court imposed deadline, federal lawyers said that 1,442 children separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration's crackdown on immigrant families had been reunited early Thursday morning, and that officials expected to return all the children "found eligible for reunification" to parents by Friday. 

Most of the children will be transported to one of eight locations managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where they will be held with their parents until they are released. 

However, 711 children will remain in custody with Health and Human Services, after federal officials said that at least 431 parents had been deported without their children. Another 94 children remain in HHS custody because the adult's location was "under case file review." At least 94 children were kept in custody, while another 67 children stayed in custody because of what officials called "red flags." 

Lastly, about 120 children were not reunited with their parents because, according to federal officials, the parent waived their rights. 

However, the ACLU has challenged these waivers, arguing that in many cases, parents signed away their rights without understanding the document they were signing, or because U.S. officials mislead them by telling them that a waiver was the only way that their child could stay in the United States. 

Matthew Albence, the head of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, bristled at this claim during a press call Thursday, arguing that parents knowingly signed away their rights. 

"They had the opportunity for reunification prior to removal, and they declined that opportunity," he said. "These parents who paid smugglers $5,000 to $6,000 to get their children here, and made the very dangerous journey across Central America and Mexico, are not going to give up a chance for their child to remain here, so they frequently decline to have that child removed with them." 

ICE agents, Albence said, do their jobs with "compassion, dignity and professionalism." 

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"The fact that an individual has a child doesn't absolve them of the criminal activity they are engaged in," he said. 

The ACLU submitted to the court dozens of affidavits written by lawyers and immigrant parents, which outlined how the government made have put parents at a disadvantage. 

A father from Honduras told a lawyer volunteering at the El Paso detention center that he was given a waiver at "various times" to relinquish the rights to his 17-year-old son. The man repeatedly refused, and apparently cannot see well enough to read legal forms, and had to have them read to him, making him "utterly dependent on the person reading a form to him to tell him its contents," the lawyer wrote. 

Another father said he signed two forms while in detention in Yuma, Arizona before he was transferred to the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, but that the forms were in English and "they were not explained to him." Another father in Otero said that he along with 15-20 others were only given a few minutes to read and sign the form while at the facility's church. 

A woman from Guatemala told her lawyer that an ICE agent told her she could not request asylum because she entered "too far from a Port of Entry"—U.S. law is explicit in saying that people can seek asylum whether or not at a U.S. port—and that she "had no options" but to sign the document. 

And, a Guatemalan man told a volunteer lawyer that officials told him that if he wished his daughter to remain in the United States, he had to sign the form, but the officials did not tell him that he had the choice to be reunified with his daughter. 

According to ACLU's lead on the case, Lee Gelernt about 85 parents signed waivers, and 127 apparently agreed to waive their right to reunite with their child orally. 

Gelernt said the ACLU will challenge the waivers. "We're hoping the government is not going to play a game of gotcha. As precious as a right as you can have, all turning on the possibility that a parent was confused, the U.S. government should not want to make a mistake and take a child when the parent and child want to be together." 

"Why wouldn't the want to make sure that a decision is correct," he said. 

The numbers came as part of a joint status report, filed as part of a class-action lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a Congolese woman, identified only as Ms. L. in court documents, who said that officials took her daughter from her as she was seeking asylum—violating U.S. and international law, the suit said. 

In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Trump administration officials would seek to prosecute anyone who crossed the border under a "zero tolerance" policy.  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. 

In a 35 day period over the summer, U.S. officials took 2,342 children from their parents, said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. 

In late June, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw ruled that the government had 14 days to return "tender age" children, or those younger than 5, and 30 days to reunite all other children with their parents on or before Thursday. 

Federal officials missed the first deadline completely. 

In a status report issued two days after the July 10 deadline, federal officials said that 57 children out of 103 had been reunited with their parents at the end of a chaotic process marked by computer malfunctions, logistical problems and administrative failures. 

Federal officials said that there were 2,551 children who were identified as possible members of the class-action lawsuit, but revised that number downward, noting that "further review" shows that 20 children were not separated from their parents. 

In a telephone conference with reporters, Chris Meekins, an official with Health and Human Services said that "Hundreds of staff within HHS have worked 24-7 to reunify their parents in ICE custody." 

Gelernt said that he expected the government to release a statement that it had met the court's deadline, but that was because it was reunited a "self-selected" group that it had "unilaterally" created.  

And, he said that the ACLU would be seeking a 7-day stay of deportation that began once parents and their children were reunited so that they could talk about how they would deal with their deportations along with volunteer lawyers and human rights groups. 

The ACLU filed a motion seeking the stay, and on Friday pushed Sabraw to grant it. 

"The Trump administration again has failed to remedy a crisis it created when it began its ‘zero tolerance’ policy of criminalizing people seeking refuge in our country," said Diana Pliego, policy associate at the National Immigration Law Center. "After subjecting families to unthinkable pain and trauma, the administration should be doing everything possible to ensure that every child it took is back with their parent. Instead, it has cynically deemed hundreds of parents ‘ineligible’ for reunification, and hundreds were deported back to danger without their kids." 

According to a plan submitted by federal officials on July 15, ICE will coordinate with MVM Inc. to dispatch reunited families to pre-identified release locations operated by humanitarian organizations.

MVN Inc. is the same defense contractor that was using a vacant Phoenix office building to house dozens of immigrant children in early June. The building was not licensed by Arizona to hold children, and the company claimed publicly that it does not operate "shelters or any type of housing" for children. 

MVM Inc. has received contracts to transport immigrants, including a $63 million contract from ICE to transport unaccompanied minors to locations in Texas. 

Gelernt said that the government's tone in court is one of pride on the reunification efforts and that it is acting in good faith, but this is something that the government "should not have to say, but because of their past practice, they're forced to actually say that." 

Government officials, he said, are acting like they're "showing up to fix some natural disaster." 

"This is a disaster they created," he said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A young boy and his father wait to seek asylum at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona in late June.