WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration struggled Wednesday with how to abide by a federal judge’s order requiring that thousands of migrant children who were forcibly separated from their parents be reunited within 30 days.
The hard deadline set Tuesday night by a U.S. District Judge in San Diego touched off a flurry of activity at facilities already coping with the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s order to end the separation of families at the border.
In his order, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said all families must be reunited within 30 days, and children under 5 must be reunited with their parents within 14 days. He also issued a nationwide injunction against further family separations, unless the parent is deemed unfit or doesn’t want to be with the child.
Asked about the injunction, Trump offered no complaint, saying, “We believe the families should be together also so there’s not a lot to fight.”
But it remained unclear Wednesday how the administration would meet that deadline, given the amount of red tape and confusion that has hung over the reunification process.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is taking an average of 57 days to place children in its care with adult sponsors — far longer than the time now allotted by the judge.
HHS, which is in charge of the separated children, referred questions Wednesday to the Justice Department, which in turn said it was up to Congress to deal with the border situation.
“Last night’s court decision makes it even more imperative that Congress finally act to give federal law enforcement the ability to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together,” the department said in a statement. It added: “Without this action by Congress, lawlessness at the border will continue.”
Hours later, the Republican-led House resoundingly rejected a far-ranging immigration bill that would have barred the Department of Homeland Security from separating migrant children from their parents.
The bill was killed 301-121, with nearly half of Republicans opposing the measure — an embarrassing defeat for Trump and House leaders.
Meanwhile, the HHS inspector general’s office announced Wednesday that it would be launching a wide-ranging review of conditions at shelters for migrant children focused on safety and health-related concerns, as well as the training and qualifications of federal contractors who are supposed to ensure the well-being of children temporarily in federal custody.
Spokeswoman Tesia Williams said allegations of mistreatment or abuse would be referred to appropriate authorities to investigate as soon as possible. HHS is caring for about 12,000 migrant children, including some 2,000 who arrived at the southwest border with a parent.
The department’s Administration for Children and Families also said in a statement that it was “focused on continuing to provide quality services and care” to minors being held in Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded facilities and reunifying children with relatives or appropriate sponsors.
“Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody,” it said.
But Robert Carey, who led the refugee office during the Obama administration, said the agency will likely struggle to link children with their parents, especially if parents are still detained or have already been deported.
Historically, children in the refugee office’s care arrive alone in the U.S., with personal documents or a contact for a relative already in the country, making it easier to place them with a sponsor. But there have been widespread reports of children being taken from their parents unexpectedly, and where neither side knows where the other is.
“I see all the problems. I don’t know what the plan or the level of coordination is to overcome those,” Carey said.
Scott Lloyd, head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has been handling many of the cases, said minors in the office’s custody have access to education, recreation, mental health, health care, and counseling and that, in every case, parents’ and children’s records are linked.
“The parents and children are able to communicate as much as possible,” which includes twice-weekly phone calls, he said.
In his order, Sabraw was highly critical of the reunification process, arguing that administration officials were only trying to reunite kids who were being removed from the country. When parents were not immediately placed into removal proceedings, it was essentially up to the parent to try and locate a child.
“The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance — responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” he wrote.
Democrats, meanwhile, latched onto the order as a rare win.
“That opinion of the court shows an administration in chaos, also an administration that is totally lawless and heartless,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “And thank goodness for some sanity and common sense from at least one federal judge.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan requesting a bipartisan briefing from senior administration officials responsible for the reunification process. She complained the agencies implementing Trump’s order have yet to provide clear guidance on the reunification process.
John Sandweg, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he thought the order would dramatically increase the likelihood of parents being reunited with their children. But he said it would be a logistical challenge for agencies ill-prepared to handle the separations in the first place.
More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents in recent weeks and some were placed in government-contracted shelters hundreds of miles away from their parents. Many of those families escaped drug- and violence-wracked Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in search of safe haven in the United States.