Detainees are seen outside tent shelters used to hold separated family members on June 22, in Fabens, Texas. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press

Government lawyers said Friday they are scrambling to meet a looming deadline to reunite more than 100 young migrant children with their parents, but didn’t know the whereabouts of many of the children’s mothers and fathers.

Only about half of the 100 children under the age of 5 who were separated from their parents at the border will be reunited by the court-imposed July 10 deadline, government lawyers told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California in a status hearing.

Nineteen parents have already been deported without their children, said Sarah Fabian, the Justice Department attorney representing the government. The government can’t locate another 19 children’s parents.

“There are some groups for whom the reunification process is more difficult,” Fabian said. “One of those is for parents who have been released from (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody. If we’re not aware of where the parent is, I can’t commit to say that reunification will occur within the deadline.”

Last month, Sabraw issued an injunction ordering that the nearly 3,000 children separated from their parents at the border be reunited by July 26, and children younger than 5 be reunited by July 10.

Sabraw indicated Friday that he would consider extending the deadline for reuniting the thousands of families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy,” which called for criminally charging all adults caught crossing the border without authorization.

“I understand the significance of the undertaking that the government is being ordered to do,” Sabraw said. “It’s apparent that everyone is going in the same direction – to reunify as quickly and as safely as possible.”

The judge ordered the government to provide a list of the 100 young children who were split from their parents by Saturday, along with the status of their reunification with their parents. Fabian, the government attorney, said she could not attend a status conference on the separations over the weekend because she had out-of-state “dog-sitting responsibilities.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case challenging the family separations, must respond by Monday. Sabraw could rule on pushing back the reunification deadline for the young children shortly thereafter.

Attorneys for the U.S. government said they’ve faced vexing challenges in meeting the court’s deadline for reuniting families because properly vetting each parent takes time.

“The government does not wish to unnecessarily delay reunification,” government lawyers wrote in legal filings. “At the same time, however, the government has a strong interest in ensuring that any release of a child from government custody occurs in a manner that ensures the safety of the child.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement has strict procedures it must follow before releasing children from custody, including establishing parentage and running criminal background checks on parents to ensure they’re fit to care for children, according to the government.

The government must DNA test migrant children and their parents before reuniting them, which can delay the process, the government says.

“There is inherently a tension always between a fast release and a safe release,” Fabian said.

Lee Gelernt, the lawyer representing the ACLU, said it was ridiculous for the government to DNA test parents separated from their children and argued that the backgrounding procedures, which were enacted for unaccompanied minors who appeared at the border, should not apply to these parents whose children were separated by the government.

“The judge made it very clear he wasn’t going to allow the Trump administration to drag its feet on reunifying these children with their parents,” Gelernt said after the hearing. “We oppose the administration’s efforts to further prolong the suffering of these families.”

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.