(Reuters) – Even as the U.S. government scrambles to meet a Thursday deadline for reuniting hundreds of immigrant children with their parents, it has acknowledged that hundreds more families separated by border officials will not be brought back together immediately.
FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children housed in a tent encampment are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Government lawyers told a federal judge in San Diego this week that 917 parents of about 2,500 who were parted from their children may not be eligible for prompt reunification because they have already been deported, have waived reunification, have criminal backgrounds or are otherwise unfit.
Lawyers working with immigrants say the government’s efforts have been chaotic, and the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday filed declarations in court detailing the stories of parents allegedly pressured into waiving reunification or signing deportation papers they did not understand.
The rights group has asked U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego to stay deportations of families for seven days after they are brought back together, saying attorneys need the time to ensure that parents understand their rights and have considered their options.
The request came as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU to challenge the separation of parents and children under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policies aimed at deterring illegal immigration. President Donald Trump ordered the separations stopped in June, after a widespread outcry, and Sabraw ordered the government to reunite the families it had separated by Thursday.
Organizations working with the children complained about a lack of coordination in the reunification efforts but also remained hopeful the government would meet the deadline imposed by Sabraw.
“We’re seeing some kids swept away in the middle of the night to be reunified,” said Anthony Enriquez of Catholic Charities of New York, which represents some of the affected children.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told Sabraw at a hearing on Tuesday the reunification process was “a mess,” something government lawyers disputed.
Sabraw has criticized some aspects of the reunification process, but in recent days he has praised government efforts to meet the deadline.
As of Monday, officials said they had brought together 879 parents with their children and identified 1,634 parents possibly eligible for reunification. Updated numbers have not been provided.
“We have many reasons to be proud,” said Scott Stewart, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, at Tuesday’s hearing in Sabraw’s San Diego courtroom.
Attorneys for parents and children say that in many instances, even when families are ultimately reunited, the process seemed unnecessarily difficult.
Lawyers Leslie Thorne and Emily Westridge Black, for example, said a Honduran mother they were representing was told she was going to be reunited with her 12-year-old daughter after two months apart. But first the mother spent nearly a full day in what is known as the “ice box,” a cold holding cell at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas.
Meanwhile, her daughter spent the night in a car in the detention center parking lot, along with three other children and two adult supervisors.
“They had no information when the mother would come out,” said Thorne.
Editing by Sue Horton and Cynthia Osterman