Judge holds firm on deadline for reuniting immigrant families

SAN DIEGO -- The federal government was falling far short Tuesday of meeting a court-ordered deadline to reunite young children with their families after being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting a federal judge in San Diego to remind attorneys that his deadlines are not "aspirational goals."

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw told government attorneys he expects the deadline for reuniting children under age 5 with their families to be met. He said any failure to reunite eligible families must be documented in a written report by Thursday and discussed the following day in court.

On June 26, Sabraw, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, set a Tuesday deadline for reuniting children under 5 with their families and a July 26 deadline for reunification of about 3,000 children over age 5.

"These are firm deadlines, not aspirational goals," the judge said.

Attorneys for the government and ACLU had said Monday they expected roughly half of the 102 children under age 5 who were separated from their families at the border to be reunited by Tuesday. But that number was in flux Tuesday morning, with the process proceeding more slowly than anticipated.

Lee Gelernt, ACLU deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project, said outside court in San Diego that he expected 65 children of the 102 young children to be returned to their families Tuesday, "the takeaway today was the deadlines are not aspirational."

But federal authorities said the process was going slowly for a variety of reasons. By midday, federal officials reported that only four of the 102 young children had been reunited with their families, with about 34 more likely to be returned by day's end.

According to Gelernt, "yesterday, the government suggested they would be 54 to 59 individuals reunited but today, they said that only four have been reunited and that an additional 34 would be reunited today- but could not promise any additional reunifications."

In a conference call with reporters, Chris Meekins, a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services, said the reunification process may be going slowly, "but there is no question that it is protecting children."

He told reporters that 14 illegal immigrants could not be reunited with children because some had criminal histories, some were determined not to be the parents of the children and one had a communicable disease. Authorities were working to verify the parentage in 16 other cases, while in 20 other cases, the parent had already been removed from the United States or released from federal custody, Meekins said.

In court in San Diego, Sabraw said DNA tests to determine if a child belongs to a family aren't necessary if family members have other documentation, such as a birth certificate.

The judge said he would hold frequent status conferences to make sure the reunification process is proceeding as scheduled.

"Everyone is rowing in the same direction here," Sabraw said.

Last month, Sabraw granted a preliminary injunction as part of a class- action lawsuit requiring the reunification of children separated from their families at the border under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" crackdown on illegal border crossings.

Gelernt said he was "extremely disappointed" that the government is not going to be able to reunite eligible families right away, but said he was "pleased" with the progress in the reunifications.

The government last week asked for more time to complete the reunification because it claimed it needed more time to ensure the children's safety and to confirm their parental relationships.

"The judge has promised to stay on top of it," Gelernt said outside court.

On Monday, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to amend a decades-old court settlement that limits the amount of time immigrant children can be held in federal custody. That thwarted a government plan to detain children with their families while criminal proceedings were pending.

Federal officials told reporters Tuesday that immigrant parents being reunited with their children are instead being outfitted with ankle monitors and released from custody.