Ever Reyes Mejia, of Honduras, carries his son to a vehicle after being reunited and released by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Grand Rapids, Mich. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo
By DAN DIAMOND
07/12/2018 09:09 AM EDT
Updated 07/12/2018 11:34 AM EDT
The Trump administration Thursday said that all eligible migrant children under age 5 who were separated from their parents at the border were reunited with their families, but dozens more young kids remain separated — including some whose parents have already been deported.
“As of this morning, the initial reunifications were completed,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a joint statement. “The Trump administration does not approach this mission lightly, and we intend to continue our good faith efforts to reunify families.”Story Continued Below
Thursday’s announcement came two days after the original court-ordered deadline to reunify the families of young kids. The Trump administration is facing a 6 p.m. Thursday deadline to convince U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw that it has complied with his court order.
The Trump administration said 57 of the 103 children under age 5 were eligible to be reunited with their families under the court order issued last month. However, the remaining 46 children weren’t eligible because their parents failed background checks or because of other logistical barriers, including deportation, officials said.
Administration officials also said they have “already begun a process” to reunite thousands of older children with their families. HHS last week said that it had custody of more than 2,000 migrant children that it separated at the border.
The ACLU, which brought the class-action lawsuit that led to the reunifications, criticized the administration to failing to reunite every young child and said it might ask the court to impose penalties. “[M]ake no mistake about it: the government missed the deadline” to reunite all eligible children by July 10, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
It’s not clear how the 12 adults who have been deported will be reunited with their children. Officials from HHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they are working with consular offices abroad, and they contended the administration has limited authority to reunite those families.
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“We don’t have the legal authority to bring those [adults] back in the country for reunification purposes,” said Matthew Albence, executive associate director of ICE’s enforcement and removal programs. “They have no lawful right to be here.”
Administration officials also insisted that the deported parents were given the option to be reunited with their children but declined. “The reason they came here in the first place was to get the child to the United States,” Albence said. “They’re not going to take the child back with them once they’ve accomplished that.”
The administration officials said background checks and DNA tests, which have delayed efforts to reunify families, have prevented children from potentially dangerous situations, like being placed with an alleged murderer, an adult who was convicted of child cruelty or adults who were not actually the parents to the children. Chris Meekins of HHS’ emergency response office appeared to contradict a New York Times report on Thursday that HHS would soon simplify its background check process to speed up reunifications.
“Each step in the process that HHS uses is necessary to protect these kids,” Meekins said. “Eliminating any one of these steps will endanger children.”
The reunification deadline represents only the beginning of what could be an arduous task of tracking down migrant parents and children who were forcibly separated when they were caught at the border. Under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border strategy, thousands of minors were separated from adults, who then faced misdemeanor illegal entry charges.
The administration faces a July 26 court deadline to reunite the remaining children. Officials on Thursday said they were expediting the reunification of some children whose younger siblings already were returned to their families.
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