Deadline approaching to have immigrant families reunited

WASHINGTON (AP) — This spring, the Trump administration began a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute anyone caught crossing the border illegally. Because children can’t be in jail with their parents, more than 2,300 families caught by Border Patrol were separated. The move prompted mass outrage in the United States and internationally.

After first blaming the practice on the Democrats, Trump on June 20 signed an executive order that stopped the separation of families. A June 26 court order by a federal judge set a hard deadline to reunite the families, and that deadline is fast approaching.

Here’s where things stand:

THE NUMBERS

It’s still not clear how many children have been separated from families under the zero-tolerance policy, or how many remain separated. Trump administration officials have said 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 parents between May 5 and June 9. Trump’s order stopped separations on June 20.

About 520 children were reunited with their families within days because the improper-entry prosecutions were finished before the minors were turned over to the custody of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for caring for unaccompanied children. HHS Secretary Alex Azar told a congressional committee on June 26 there were 2,047 such children in his agency’s care.

On Thursday, he said “under 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. He said none had been transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody yet.

REUNITING FAMILIES

A federal judge in San Diego who had been hearing the case of a woman separated from her child ruled on June 26 that the families must be reunited within 30 days of his order, and by July 10 if the children are younger than 5.

But it’s still not clear yet how that will work. Homeland Security has set up a staging area at the Port Isabel detention center in Texas where the parents can be detained until their children arrive. But it’s not clear where they will go afterward — the three operational family detention centers are near capacity.

It’s also possible not all parents will be reunited with their children; HHS has a strict set of guidelines the agency must follow to determine a suitable sponsor, including a home visit and a criminal background check.

Health and Human Services deployed more than 200 workers to review the cases of separated children. Azar said parents and children are being swabbed for DNA to match paternity and checks are being done as rapidly as possible to make the court deadline. He suggested the children would be transferred to ICE custody at Port Isabel shortly before the deadline. But he signaled they’d ask a judge for more time.

Azar said about 100 of the separated children are younger than 5 and subject to the rapidly approaching July 10 deadline. Officials there say they know the locations of all the children — some were sent hundreds of miles away to shelters around the country operated by nonprofits that care for them until a parent or other sponsor is identified.

A judge has put off — at least until Monday — a ruling on a Trump administration request for more time to reunite the children under 5 with their parents.

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