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

About half of the more than 100 young migrant children who were separated from their parents at the border will be reunited by a court-imposed deadline tomorrow, one of the first concrete steps the Trump administration has publicly taken to return up to 3,000 children it split from their families in a massive immigration crackdown.

“I am encouraged with the progress,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the reunification order, said Monday. “I’m optimistic that many of these families will be reunited tomorrow and we’ll get a clear understanding of who has been reunited and who hasn’t.”

Last month, Sabraw ordered the government to reunite up to 3,000 children who were removed from their families in the wake of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which called for criminally charging anyone caught crossing the border without authorization. Saying the situation had reached a “crisis level,” he ordered all children be reunited with their parents within 30 days, and those that were younger than 5 be reunited within 14.

More than 50 of the 102 children under the age of 5 will be reunited by Tuesday’s deadline, government lawyers said. Most of them have parents who are already in immigration custody.

To be reunited, the children will be taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, and then released along with their parents, said Sarah Fabian, the Department of Justice attorney representing the government.

None of the children will be detained along with their parents in a family residential center, she said.

At least nine parents have already been deported without their children, Fabian told the judge today. The ACLU responded that they thought the number is likely higher.

The more vexing challenge the government faces is reuniting children to parents who are no longer in immigration custody. The government asked the court last week for more time to reunite families, saying it is bound by Office of Refugee Resettlement guidelines that say children cannot be released from custody until the agency has established parentage, backgrounded parents, and ensured that kids aren’t released to human traffickers.

The government has been using cheek swabs to DNA-test parents and children, which has delayed the reunification process, Fabian said.

“There’s always going to be tension between a fast release and a safe release,” Fabian said.

Lee Gelernt, the lawyer representing the ACLU, said it was unnecessary 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.

“I think the government in the last 48 hours has taken significant steps to reunify,” Gelernt said. “One of the holdups is their insistence of using their long reunification process for unaccompanied minors. They haven’t reunited all kids and parents who are non-criminals, so in that sense I don’t think there’s been full compliance.”

Sabraw rejected the government’s blanket request for a deadline extension last week, but said he would be open to it in certain circumstances. He told the government and ACLU to submit their proposals to streamline the Office of Refugee Resettlement child release policy by 6 p.m. Pacific on Monday. A hearing to discuss the reunifications and proposed policy changes is scheduled for 11 a.m. Pacific on Tuesday.

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.