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US struggles to reunite families as court deadline hits

July 27, 2018

The US government has managed to reunite over 1,400 children with their parents after Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy saw the families separated on the border. But hundreds more remain in limbo.

Young men walk with their hands behind their backs as US authorities follow
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images/R. D. Franklin

The US government failed to meet a court-ordered deadline on Thursday that called for children and parents who had been separated at the US-Mexico border to be reunified before 6:00 p.m. Eastern time (2200 UTC) on July 26.

In a filing with the California court that imposed the deadline, the Trump administration said that 1,820 children ages five and up had been released from detainment. However, only 1,442 of these children had been reunified with their families under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, while 378 others were released "in other appropriate circumstances."

The filing also said that 711 children would not be reunified with their parents by the deadline because the adults were either not "eligible" or had been deported. The kids remain in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Kids still wait for reunion

Those 'eligible' reunited

The government filing described the reunification results as a success, stating that all "eligible" children and parents would be brought back together.

"The reunification plan outlined to the court... is proceeding, and is expected to result in the reunification of all class members found eligible for reunification at this time by the court's July 26, 2018 deadline," it read. 

Read more: Trump's migrant family separations reversal too little, too late

However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the civil rights organization that brought the case before the California court, said the government was "picking and choosing" in its reunification process.

"We're thrilled for the families who are finally reunited, but many more remain separated," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, told DW in an emailed statement. "The Trump administration is trying to sweep them under the rug by unilaterally picking and choosing who is eligible for reunification. We will continue to hold the government accountable and get these families back together."

The ACLU also said it would work to find all the parents who are no longer in the US but whose children are still there.

Starting in April, US authorities separated over 2,500 children from their parents at the border as part of Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, which criminally prosecuted any undocumented individual caught crossing the border.

It triggered a national and international outcry, leading Trump to reverse his policy.

California Judge Dana Sabraw then set Thursday as the deadline for all reunifications to take place.

Complications and difficult decisions

In the run-up to Thursday's deadline, Trump officials had already qualified the reunification efforts along the lines of eligibility, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stating on Tuesday that the government plans to "reunify all families that are suitable."

People hold a banner and flags demanded family reunification
New Yorkers protested the separation of families on the US-Mexican border in June, demanding reunificationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Pacific Press/G. Holtermann-Gorden

But immigration activists described an inefficient, chaotic and at times misleading process.

Douglas Almendarez, a Honduran immigrant who returned home, told Reuters news agency that he had been informed by officials that returning to Honduras was the only way he would see his 11-year-old son again.

Some parents were deported while their children remain in US detention, and in cases when separated children and parents both remained in the US, they were often housed across the country from each other, complicating reunification efforts.

The government previously missed a deadline set by Judge Sabraw for July 10, which required all children under the age of five to be returned to their parents. US officials said 45 children were ineligible for reunification.

Some parents faced the choice of whether to return to their country of origin as a family or leave their children in the US to fight for asylum alone.

cmb/bw (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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