El Paso, Texas — The Trump administration faced a court-imposed deadline Thursday to reunite thousands of children and parents who were forcibly separated at the US-Mexico border, an enormous logistical task brought on by its "zero tolerance" policy on illegal entry.
Authorities have identified 2 551 children 5 and older who may be covered by the order to be reunited with their parents by Thursday's court-imposed deadline. That effort was expected to fall short, partly because hundreds of parents may have already been deported without their children.
But, by focusing only on those deemed by the government to be "eligible" for reunification, authorities expected to claim success.
As of Tuesday, there were 1 012 parents reunified with their children in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Hundreds more had been cleared and were just waiting on transportation.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told members of Congress on Wednesday that the administration was "on track" to meet the deadline, an assertion that was greeted with disbelief and anger by the all-Democrat Congressional Hispanic Caucus, according to people who attended. Nielsen declined to comment to reporters as she left the closed-door meeting.
For the last two weeks, children have been arriving steadily at ICE locations in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to be reunited with parents. Faith-based and other groups have provided meals, clothing, legal advice and plane and bus tickets. Parents are typically equipped with ankle-monitoring bracelets and given court dates before an immigration judge.
Natalia Oliveira da Silva, a mother from Brazil, waited nervously outside a detention centre in Pearsall, Texas, for her young daughter, Sara. She soon spotted the 5-year-old approaching in a vehicle, a seatbelt over her chest.
Sara got out and was quickly in her mother's arms, asking her, "They're not going to take you away again, right?"
Since their separation in late May, the girl had been at a shelter for immigrant minors in Chicago, while Oliveira was moved through facilities across Texas.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego commended the government Tuesday for its recent efforts and for apparently being on track to reunify the roughly 1,600 parents it deems eligible, calling it "a remarkable achievement." Yet Sabraw also seized on the government's assertion that 463 parents may be outside the United States. The Justice Department said this week that the number was based on case files and under review, signalling it could change.
"It is the reality of a policy that was in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people," said Sabraw, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush.
Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the separated families, said the government is "letting themselves off the hook" by focusing on those it deems eligible and excluding parents who were deported or haven't been located.
"I think the critical point to remember, is that they are only reunifying by the deadline those families who they are claiming unilaterally are eligible for reunification by the deadline," he told reporters. "The deadline is the deadline for just those parents and children the government says it can reunite."
Lourdes de Leon, who turned herself in to immigration authorities, was deported to her native Guatemala on June 7 but her 6-year-old son, Leo, remained in the United States.
De Leon said Guatemalan consular officials told her signing a deportation order would be the easiest way to be reunited with Leo.
"He is in a shelter in New York," de Leon said. "My baby already had his hearing with a judge who signed his deportation eight days ago. But I still do not know when they are going to return him to me."
The government was expected to provide the judge with an updated count by the end of Thursday. Both sides were due in court Friday.
Spencer Amdur, another ACLU attorney, said there are three categories of concern: The roughly 1,600 children who "everyone agrees have to be reunified" by Thursday; children whose parents were deported and who must be reunified but not necessarily by Thursday; and others the government deems ineligible, including parents with criminal records or are suspected of abuse or neglect and some who aren't really the children's parents.
In El Paso, the Annunciation House, which has been assisting dozens of reunited families, said progress has been slow considering Thursday's deadline. The organization has already received about 250 reunited families. Advocacy group FWD.us has been buying plane tickets for them to quickly leave.
"We are under a logistical 24/7 crisis all-hands-on-deck moment to get through the (Thursday) deadline. We will not stop until all of these children are reunited with their parents and that is regardless of where their parents are," said Alida Garcia, coalitions and policy director for FWD.us.
The government gives advocates sometimes as little as an hour's notice when they're releasing parents and children, Garcia said. The government has been shuttling kids from their shelters to the parking lots of the detention centres where their parents are held. Then they are handed over to non-governmental and faith-based groups that help them get to their intended destination.
Late last month, Sabraw ordered a nationwide halt to family separations, which President Donald Trump effectively did on his own amid an international outcry. He issued a 14- day deadline to reunite children under 5 with their parents and 30 days for children 5 and older.
Attention will now shift largely to the hundreds of children whose parents may have been deported and to how much time reunified parents in the United States should have to decide if they want to seek asylum.
The ACLU, which wants the judge to give families at least seven days after reunification to decide on their next steps, filed a raft of affidavits from attorneys working on the border Wednesday that detail what it considers flawed procedures, including limited phone access and strict visitation policies, language barriers and being given only a few minutes to decide whether to leave their children in the United States.