Washington • At the expiration of a court deadline to reunite migrant families separated during its “zero tolerance” border crackdown, the Trump administration said Thursday that it has delivered 1,442 children to parents detained in immigration custody, and is on track to return all of those deemed eligible for reunification.
But 711 children remain in government shelters because their parents have criminal records, their cases remain under review or the parents are no longer in the United States, officials said. The latter group includes 431 parents.
Chris Meekins with the Department of Health and Human Services, which has led the reunification effort, told reporters that “hundreds of staff have worked 24-7” to meet the court’s 30-day deadline. Administration officials said they would work with the court to figure out how to return the remaining children, including those whose parents have been deported.
Another 120 parents declined to be reunited with their kids, the government said, a decision some parents make to allow their children to remain in the United States with other relatives while their immigration claims are adjudicated.
President Donald Trump ordered an end to family separations June 20 amid public outcry and spreading criticism within his own political party, as searing accounts emerged of traumatized children and anguished parents. Within days, Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, a Republican appointee, ordered the government to return children to their parents as quickly as possible.
Sabraw’s order set off a bureaucratic scramble across multiple federal agencies, as workers sorted through case files by hand to match children to parents and plan their reunions. He set July 26 as a deadline but allowed the government latitude to determine which parents would qualify for expedited reunions.
The judge has praised the government's progress so far as a "remarkable achievement," and Sabraw is expected to rule Friday on a motion by the plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union, to make the government wait at least a week before attempting to deport families who've been reunited.
"The families have had virtually no chance to talk to each other about what decision they want to make," ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said Thursday. "Those are incredibly difficult legal decisions to make for parents and children who haven't seen each other, and we believe seven days is more than reasonable."
In many cases, those families will have to decide whether to be deported together or to leave their children behind in the United States to pursue their asylum cases.
Government attorneys have told Sabraw they are proud of the round-the-clock reunification effort. But Gelernt said the government was praising itself for meeting benchmarks it set, and that it would take far longer to sort out the cases of children still in government custody.
"They shouldn't be proud of work they're doing," he told reporters.
"It should just be: we created a cruel, inhumane unconstitutional policy. Now we're trying to fix it in every way we can and make these families whole," Gelernt said.
The ACLU said in court documents filed Wednesday that many migrant parents separated from their children may have unknowingly signed away their reunification rights.
Some parents said they thought they were signing paperwork that would, in fact, allow them to reunite with their children, according to their lawyers. Others described being crowded into rooms with dozens of people, given only a few minutes to fill out forms that would determine whether they would reunite with their children or leave them behind in the United States. They signed the forms out of fear, or confusion, or a belief that they had no other choice, lawyers wrote in the court filing.
"One father was told that if he didn't sign the form presented to him, then he would not see his daughter again," lawyer Kathryn Shepherd wrote in a court affidavit.
These testimonies, described by more than a dozen lawyers, were part of the ACLU ongoing class-action lawsuit over the U.S. government’s separation of migrant families.
As Thursday's court deadline approached, the Trump administration faced increased scrutiny from Sabraw over its inability to sort out how many migrant parents have already been deported or released from federal custody.
The government is seeking to resume deportations and the administration has challenged the ACLU's motion, insisting the migrant parents it deported gave their consent.
But Wednesday's filing paints a picture of confusion and misinformation. Gelernt accused immigration officials of distributing paperwork to migrant parents in a "coercive and misleading manner," creating a chaotic reunification process.
Many of the parents speak indigenous languages, of which there are more than two dozen in Central America. Interpreters are scarce. And even among those migrants who speak Spanish, many do not know how to read or write. This means that many migrants have very little understanding of the current status of their asylum case, the whereabouts of their children or their legal options moving forward.
Luis Cruz, a lawyer counseling with migrant parents in Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, described speaking with five fathers who were on the government's list of people who had relinquished their rights to reunification with their children.
"All of the five fathers wish to be reunited with their children," Cruz wrote in an affidavit as part of the ACLU's court filing. "All five said they can't read or write in Spanish or English. Each of the fathers told me that they were not given the opportunity to ask questions. . . . Each described feeling hopeless and believing that they had no alternative but to sign the form."
One broke down in tears, saying he hadn't spoken to his son in 25 days and was uncertain of his location.
Leah Chavla, who has been counseling reunited families at a residential center in Dilley, Texas, said it takes hours just to get basic information from families about the stages of their cases. This is in large part, Chavla says, because of the trauma these families have experienced.
Chavla described the struggle of clarifying information during an interview with a mother and her 11-year-old son.
“The boy would barely speak through the entire interview, only sometimes slightly nodding or shaking his head to answer simple — yes or no — questions,” Chavla said. “He only stared forward with an intent expression that looked like he was concentrating so as to not cry. His mother repeatedly told him to speak to us, but he could not speak.”