The U.S. government must identify how many families it separated before it instituted a zero tolerance immigration policy last April, according to an order issued by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw on Thursday.
The deadline comes three months after an internal watchdog report found that the Trump administration could have separated thousands more children from their parents even before its highly publicized separation policy took effect.
In February, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said it was too much of a “burden” to find the members of these families. Earlier this month, ORR officials said it could take up to two years to track down the potentially thousands of immigrant children it had separated from their mothers and fathers, given the fact that officials did not methodically keep track of family separations prior to April of last year.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of an ongoing lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the government’s quoted time frame was unacceptable. Cmdr. Jonathan White, the Department of Health and Human Services’ operational lead for the identification process, said in a report Thursday that the department could likely identify family members within a six-month window and explained that its previous one- to two-year estimate was a worst-case scenario.
“The court order is exactly what we wanted,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU case. “Every day a parent and child are separated is devastating.”
White said during Thursday’s hearing that he’s hopeful Health and Human Services has devised a system that can comb through the records of 47,000 immigrant children who were taken into government custody between July 1, 2017, and June 25, 2018 ― the day before Sabraw issued an injunction to halt family separations.
“It is my belief that the six month time frame is sufficient to complete this,” White said at Thursday’s hearing. “That is my operational target, but I’ve been wrong before.”
“The court order is exactly what we wanted. Every day a parent and child are separated is devastating.”
White says HHS employees will immediately start to go through the electronic records of 500-1,000 children that Customs and Border Protection and the ORR have flagged as possible separation cases, and within a few months, will hire a team to conduct a statistical analysis of agency records to determine which children were most likely to have been separated.
The government sounds more confident about its process than in February, when Jallyn Sualog, deputy director at the ORR, said it would take 100 ORR analysts working eight hours each day for between seven and 15 months to “even begin reconciling” data on separated families.
A year after the zero tolerance policy was first implemented, most of the nearly 3,000 children separated from their families have been reunited, in accordance with Sabraw’s order. But at least 200 remain permanently separated since their parents were deported back to life-threatening situations in their home countries and opted to keep their children in the U.S.
Once the government identifies and provides contact information for the families separated before the zero tolerance policy, the ACLU will form a steering committee of organizations to track down parents, which in some cases will involve trekking to remote, crime-ridden villages to find mothers and fathers for whom the government does not have a working phone number.
And while family reunification will be especially challenging for this group since the children are no longer in government custody and may not even still be living with their initial sponsors, Gelernt says the judge’s order is an important first step.
“We are anticipating an enormously difficult and resource-intensive process,” said Gelernt. “[But] it’s critical the court set this deadline.”