(Reuters) – The U.S. rights group that won a court order to force officials to reunite parents who had been separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border said on Wednesday it was still unclear if the government had fully met the first deadline.
Acting on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the government to reunite about 60 children under the age of five separated from their parents by Tuesday.
“Trying to find out,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney wrote in an email when asked if all 60 separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration were back with their parents or guardians.
Since the government first came under pressure to ease its policy on separations weeks ago, it has shifted its estimates of the number of children it would reunite.
When asked on Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services referred to figures released a day earlier, when officials said four children were reunited and at least 34 more would be by the end of the day.
Catholic Charities, which helped place some of the children in shelter facilities after their separation, held a news briefing in New York at which a handful of the reunited parents expressed relief after weeks of anxiety over the separations.
“I’m happy to finally be able to be with my child. I will never be separated from him, no matter what,” said a tearful Javier, a 30-year-old from Honduras, who was reunited with his 4-year-old son after 55 days of detention. “Those were the worst days of my life. I never imagined that this would happen.”
The organization provided first names only.
The struggle to track and match parents with children under 5 suggests the government may have more difficulties in meeting a July 26 deadline for reuniting the remaining 2,000 older children with adults from whom they were separated.
“That is going to be a significant undertaking,” Sabraw said on Tuesday of the next deadline.
U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to blame the Democratic Party, among others, for failing to fix what he has characterized as a broken immigration system.
“Judges run the system and illegals and traffickers know how it works. They are just using children!” he said.
One immigration advocate told Reuters she was still awaiting details on when officials would return two children younger than 5 to their parents. One parent was from Honduras and the other from El Salvador.
“Our clients still have not been reunified!” said Beth Krause, an attorney with Legal Aid Society’s Immigrant Youth Project, in an email to Reuters. She said the government said one would be reunited sometime Wednesday.
If the government failed to reunite all the children five with their parents by Thursday, Sabraw has asked the ACLU to suggest penalties he could levy against the government.
Also on Thursday, the government will give Sabraw a progress report on younger children and whether it expected to meet the July 26 deadline for the older group.
The government has said around 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the border as part of the government’s policy, which was abandoned in June after intense protests.
The government has said the delays stem from the time it takes to run background checks, confirm parentage and locate parents released from detention.
The ACLU’s Gelernt said during a court hearing on Friday that it was “startling” that the government cannot find some parents.
“When they release the parent they just don’t walk out the door with no record,” Gelernt said.
Rights advocates have blamed the U.S. government’s poor technology for difficulties tracking children across multiple government agencies involved in their detention and care.
Gelernt told the judge in recent hearings he was concerned that some parents may have opted to leave the United States, believing that was the only way they could be reunited with their children.
Sabraw approved on Tuesday the ACLU’s suggested legal notice that will be provided to immigrant parents, which explains they have a right to be reunited and remain in the country to pursue asylum.
Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Yeganeh Torbati in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Lisa Shumaker