Trump administration officials say they may be unable to reunite more than 900 immigrant parents with their children, after splitting them up at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In total, the administration says it has 2,551 immigrant children between the ages of 5 and 17 in its care, all of whom were separated from their families under President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which refers anyone detained at the border for criminal prosecution. Of those children, only 364 have been reunited.
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy has forcibly separated thousands of families since its implementation earlier this spring. In June, under pressure from lawmakers and civil rights groups, the president signed an executive order halting the practice, after which a federal judge gave the government 30 days to reunite those who had been split up.
Officials had less time — 14 days — to reunite the 103 children under the age of 5, a deadline it failed to meet. In total, only 57 those children were reunited with their families, with lawyers claiming the remaining minors were ineligible because their parents had criminal histories or could not be located because they had been deported, among other things.
Now, with the July 26 reunification deadline for children between 5 and 17 looming, it seems the government may once again fail to meet its court-ordered goal.
In a court filing Thursday, government lawyers stated approximately 1,606 parents of those children are potentially eligible for reunification, under HHS screening standards. However, the remaining 908 may be out of luck.
According to CNN, two of those parents were being held in state or federal custody. Ninety-one others “had a criminal record or were otherwise deemed ineligible,” and 136 had “waived” reunification rights previously. Lawyers claimed the 679 who did not fall under those categories required “further evaluation” but did not offer details on what that evaluation would entail.
“That’s a very large number but the government as usual has not provided us sufficient information to evaluate these cases,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU, told CNN. The ACLU sued the government to speed up the reunification process following Trump’s order.
Separated children still waiting to be reunited with their families are currently being held in 106 government-contracted detention facilities across the country. Many of the facilities have histories of alleged abuse or mismanagement, and in some cases, children who are eventually returned to their parents present evidence of such abuse.
“[My] child continued to cry when we got home and would hold on to my leg and would not let me go,” the mother of a 14-month-old child wrote in a lawsuit filed by 17 states and the District of Columbia last month, on behalf of separated families. “When I took off his clothes, he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”
As ThinkProgress previously reported, some of the minors being held in those government-contracted facilities have described inhumane conditions and realistic threats of violence or death.
“The room is always cold. The guards took my sweater. I sleep on the floor,” said one boy, whose account, along dozens of others, was made public this week in a series of affidavits filed by attorneys appealing the administration’s treatment of immigrant children.
“There are three mattresses, but the boys from Honduras have taken them,” he added, saying the boys had threatened to stab him while he slept.
“When I told the CBP officer that my mother was killed, they made fun of me and said I was ‘weak.’ I didn’t feel comfortable after that sharing my fear,” another boy said. Later, after he tried to make a phone call to a friend that went unanswered — his one allotted phone call per week — another guard mocked him. “This is it for you. You’re fucked,” the boy recalled the guard saying.
That same boy said several of the children in his prison cell became ill after eating tainted prison food. “Today, I have only eaten 1 burrito and 1 juice cup,” he said. “Yesterday, I was also given very salty crackers as a snack, but it gave me a stomach ache. Everybody got sick. I have access to water in the room, but it doesn’t taste good.”
It’s unclear whether the 679 parents still awaiting “further evaluation” will eventually be reunited with their children, or whether they too — like the dozens of parents still separated from those minors younger than 5 — will be permanently split up. As of yet, the ACLU says it has not received information “critical” to the reunification process.
“This information is especially critical for parents with removal orders,” ACLU lawyers wrote in Thursday’s court filing. “These parents may only have a matter of days to make the momentous decision whether to leave their child behind in the United States.”