SAN DIEGO — The Trump administration asked a judge Friday for more time to reunite families who were separated at the border under its “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute every person who enters the country illegally.
After a two-hour hearing, the judge put the administration’s request off until at least Monday, ordering the Justice Department to share with the American Civil Liberties Union a list of the 101 children under 5 years old who are separated from their parents. The group sued the administration to force the young children to be reunited by Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw scheduled another hearing for Monday in San Diego, with hopes that the two sides could agree on which of the children can be excused from the deadline.
The administration has matched 86 parents to 83 children and that 16 are not yet matched, Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said.
The deadline is July 10 for parents with children under 5 and July 26 to reunite everyone else.
The administration says federal law requires it to ensure that children are safe and that requires more time. Officials also say that they won’t be able to confirm a child’s parentage by the deadline if DNA testing is inconclusive. They will need more time to collect DNA samples or other evidence from parents who have been released from government custody.
Of the 101 children, about half are in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The others have left the country or were released, Fabian said. She said it has been more difficult to reunite children when parents are outside government custody.
The judge, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, set the deadline last week, writing that the “situation has reached a crisis level” and that the “chaotic circumstances” were of the government’s own making.
More than 2,000 children were separated from their parents after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that the zero-tolerance policy was in full effect, even if it meant splitting families. While parents were criminally prosecuted, children were placed in custody of the Health and Human Services Department. Trump reversed course on June 20 amid an international outcry, saying families should remain together.
On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said less than 3,000 children are believed to have been separated, but that includes kids who may have lost parents along the journey, not just parents who were detained at the border.
About 40 parents of children in the under-5 age group are in Homeland Security custody, and another nine are in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, the government said in court papers.
Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official, filed a declaration with the court that gives what is perhaps the most detailed account yet of what the government is doing and the hurdles it faces. Its database has some information about the children’s parents but wasn’t designed to reunify families under the court’s deadline.
The department has manually reviewed the cases of all 11,800 children in its custody by working nights and weekends, White said. The results of that review are being validated.
DNA cheek swab tests on parent and child take nearly a week to complete, said White, who called the risk of placing children with adults who aren’t their parents “a real and significant child welfare concern.”
“The Government does not wish to unnecessarily delay reunifications or burden class members,” the Justice Department filing reads. “At the same time, however, the Government has a strong interest in ensuring that any release of a child from Government custody occurs in a manner that ensures the safety of that child.”
The ACLU sued in March on behalf of a Congolese woman who was separated from her daughter for five months after seeking asylum at a San Diego border crossing and a Brazilian asylum-seeker who had been separated from her son since an arrest for illegal entry in August near the Texas-New Mexico border.
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