WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is seeking guidance from a federal court over its efforts to reunite migrant parents and their children before court-imposed deadlines, after the administration separated the families for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
In a filing overnight, U.S. Department of Justice officials asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of California for more details about procedures to reunite migrant families, saying in some cases the government may need additional time.
The separations have sparked a fierce outcry and numerous protests, part of a political firestorm over U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and beefed-up efforts to deter illegal U.S. entry.
The Trump administration had implemented the separation policy as part of stepped-up efforts to deter immigrants from crossing the U.S. border from Mexico.
But it reversed course last month amid a groundswell of global opposition and said it would keep families together if possible.
U.S. officials are now rushing to reunite more than 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border after the court in San Diego ordered the government last month to halt the practice.
Democrats and even some allies of the Republican president as well as foreign leaders and the Pope have condemned the separations, and protests continued over the weekend in cities across America over the issue.
Advocacy groups including the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit, have questioned the government’s contention it may need more time to safely reunite families, and have raised concerns about whether it has a comprehensive plan to bring families together.
The U.S. government is scheduled to update the federal judge in the San Diego case on the reunification process later on Friday.
U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw last month ordered that children under 5 years old be reunited with their parents by July 10, and for all children to be reunited by July 26. He also ordered that parents have phone contact with their children by Friday.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told reporters there were now “under 3,000” children in HHS care, including about 100 under the age of 5.
Azar said the U.S. government was relocating parents of children under 5 years old to detention facilities close to their children to help speed up family reunification.
The government, in its filing overnight, said the process could further be delayed by steps that were required before parents could be reconnected with their children, according to its interpretation of the court order: DNA testing to verify parentage, a criminal history check, and assurance that parents could provide for the child’s physical and mental well being.
As a result, some cases may require more time than allotted by the court, officials said, asking the court for guidance.
“HHS anticipates, however, in some instances it will not be able to complete the additional processes within the timelines the Court prescribed, particularly with regard to class members who are already not in Government custody,” they wrote.
Reporting by Susan Heavey and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Bernadette Baum