On Friday, officials from the Trump administration said it would require too much effort to reunite the thousands of families it separated before implementing its “zero-tolerance” policy in April, according to a declaration filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Last month, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services released a report stating that “thousands” more immigrant families had been separated than the government had previously disclosed. In the declaration submitted Friday, HHS officials said they don’t know the exact number of children who were taken from their parents before “zero tolerance” and that finding them would be too much of a “burden” since there was no formal tracking system in place.
“The Trump administration’s response is a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU’s ongoing lawsuit against ICE, in a statement. “The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers.”
HHS did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Jallyn Sualog, said that 100 ORR analysts would have to work eight hours each day for between seven and 15 months to “even begin reconciling” data on separated families. “In my judgment, ORR does not have the requisite staff for such a project,” Sualog wrote in the declaration.
Immigration advocates are appalled by the fact that the government didn’t bother to properly track separated families and that it is now shirking its responsibility to reunite parents and children.
“They are saying they just don’t care. It’s shocking from a human rights perspective for a government to behave this way.”
“They are saying they just don’t care,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s shocking from a human rights perspective for a government to behave this way.”
“I think the policy of taking the children away in the first place was cruel,” said Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer, “but to not even have a system to return the parents to the children just increases the magnitude of the cruelty.”
The government also failed to properly track the roughly 2,800 children that it separated from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” policy between April and June. The administration was required to reunite families as part of an ACLU lawsuit, an ongoing process that has at times required immigration advocates to search for deported parents on foot in remote, crime-ridden areas of Central America.
According to the inspector general’s report, 159 children who were separated under “zero tolerance” are still in ORR care, most of whose parents were deported and decided to keep their kids in the U.S. due to dangerous situations back home. If the government doesn’t allow those parents to re-apply for asylum in the U.S., families may remain permanently separated. Gelernt worries that before “zero tolerance” the government could have deported hundreds more parents who might not have had a say in their children’s futures.
In the declaration, Jonathan White, a commander with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said that most unaccompanied children are released to family sponsors and that in addition to logistical challenges, trying to reunite separated kids with their parents could be destabilizing and “would present grave child welfare concerns.”
But Gelernt says the government should not be making decisions on behalf of mothers and fathers. “[The administration] had no right to just give these kids away unless the parent was making an informed decision,” he said. “This is not a situation where the parents put the child up for adoption. This is a situation where the child was forcibly taken from the parents.”
On Feb. 21, Gelernt will argue in front of a federal judge in California that all families separated before “zero tolerance” should be part of the ACLU’s ongoing lawsuit and that the government has a responsibility to reunify these parents with their children. He is disappointed that the administration failed to act humanely towards immigrant families in its declaration.
“The [government] is saying it’s not legally required for them to [reunite families] and therefore they won’t do it,” he said. “But why not do it because it’s the right thing to do?”