A woman from Honduras carries her baby inside the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas. Families who have been processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection wait inside the facility before continuing their journey to cities across the United States. Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated Press

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to reunify thousands of migrant parents and children who were separated under the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“This situation has reached a crisis level,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in his emergency order. “There is no genuine dispute that the Government was not prepared to accommodate the mass influx of separated children. … There was no reunification plan in place, and families have been separated for months.”

More than 2,300 migrant children have been forcibly removed from their parents since the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” policy in April, which called for criminally charging all adults caught crossing the border without authorization and sparked widespread outrage across the country.

Last week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that officially ended the family separation policy, but issued no plan on how the thousands of parents whose children already were separated would be reunited.

“The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings,” Sabraw wrote. “Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property.”

The sweeping injunction came in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in March on behalf of a Congolese woman seeking asylum in the U.S. who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter for months and a Brazilian asylum seeker who was separated from her 14-year-old son.

“This ruling is an enormous victory for parents and children who thought they may never see each other again,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the attorney who argued the case. “Tears will be flowing in detention centers across the country when the families learn they will be reunited.”

In his order, the judge blasted the Trump administration for “a chaotic circumstance of the Government’s own making.”

He demanded that the government stop separating parents from their children when they’re in Department of Homeland Security custody, except in cases in which the child is in danger. He also ordered all separated families to be reunited within a month and children who are younger than 5 to be reunited with their parents within 14 days.

Sabraw said the government must give separated families an opportunity to talk by phone within 10 days and directed the government to halt all deportations of parents without their children.

“We are a country of laws, and of compassion,” the judge wrote. “The right to family integrity still applies here. The context of the family separation practice at issue here, namely an international border, does not render the practice constitutional, nor does it shield the practice from judicial review.”

The judge called it a “startling reality” that the government began splitting migrant children from their parents without any effective system for tracking the children after they were separated or allowing communication between parents and children.

Sabraw said it was “backward” that the onus was on parents to find their separated children and lambasted the Office of Refugee Resettlement for having no system in place to flag a child who has been separated from a parent or to identify and track where that parent is being detained.

The judge said he would hold a status conference July 6 to provide more guidance on his order.

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.