Politics & Government

Why the government missed the deadline to reunite immigrant families

Emotional video shows immigrant mother, 7-year-old son reunited at airport

A group that assists detained immigrants, Libre by Nexus, released a video Friday showing a 7-year-old boy and his mother reunited at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland after a month-long separation.
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A group that assists detained immigrants, Libre by Nexus, released a video Friday showing a 7-year-old boy and his mother reunited at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland after a month-long separation.

Criminal background checks, DNA tests, deportations, illnesses and cumbersome communication between three federal government agencies and even more sub-agencies have delayed the reunification of immigrant families that were separated at the border.

The Trump administration was supposed to reunite 102 children under age 5 with their parents by Tuesday, according to a deadline imposed by a federal judge in California. It still has not said on how many were actually reunited, but figures released Tuesday indicated only four children had been reunited.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who originally set the deadline for reuniting families, reduced the number to 63 Tuesday after testimony by the government on why some families could not be reunited. He also called for a more "streamlined approach" to the process. The federal government will have to testify to Sabraw Thursday on how many children of the 63 they were able to reunite.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is handling the reunification of families along with the Department of Homeland Security and, to a lesser extent, the Department of Justice, sent an email to lawmakers Tuesday afternoon detailing the process. Some steps will have to be changed, due to Sabraw's ruling.

Reunification is a four-step process once the alleged parent's location is identified, according to the email obtained by McClatchy.

It begins with HHS assessing all alleged parents both for criminal history and for actual relation to the child. All are put through a criminal background check, which eight parents failed, according to the email. Charges for those eight include child cruelty, child smuggling, narcotics crimes, robbery convictions and a warrant for murder. One other parent faces "credible evidence" of child abuse.

Those who pass the criminal background check are submitted for a DNA test, which HHS says has determined five people were not the true parents of the child.

"Some adults claimed to be parents but when approached about doing a DNA test to verify parentage admitted they were not parents," the email reads.

Sabraw told the federal government Tuesday that from now on they could only use DNA tests when they could not verify parentage in other ways, such as birth certificates.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, which has been challenging the federal government in court, said Sabraw's decision means the health and human services agency can only use DNA tests if they have reason to believe the person is not the parent, rather than in every case. The ruling also means HHS can conduct only one criminal background check, based on fingerprints taken from the parent when they were originally taken into custody. Gelernt said he believes the government has been conducting multple background checks, furthering delays.

"If they don't have red flags before reunification, they can't then say, 'Oh, we need to investigate more,' which is what has been happening," Gelernt said.

At this step of the process, HHS assesses if the parents are being treated for communicable diseases, have already been deported or have already been released within the U.S., according to the email, all of which delays reunification. One parent is being treated for a communicable disease. In another case, HHS identified a living situation where it says an adult in the household has an outstanding warrant for criminal sex abuse of a 10-year-old girl. Both of those families are currently not eligible for reunification.

Bowing to pressure from anxious allies, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the U.S. border illegally.

An additional 10 parents are in criminal custody and will not be reunited with their children until that ends. Eight more have been released into the U.S. and have to undergo additional safety screenings. Another 12 parents have been deported, and HHS said in the email they are working with lawyers for those parents to determine whether the parents wish to have their children deported to their custody.

If parents pass the criminal background check and are determined to be the child's true parents, they are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division within HHS that handles the children who have been separated, then prepares the children to be transported to ICE with their parents.

"Programs will transport the child, the child’s possessions, and – if applicable – a supply of necessities (such as medications and diapers) along with the child to an ICE custody," the email reads.

Once the child arrives, the health and human services agency officially transfers custody to ICE, and provides ICE with documentation that the parent "does not present a danger to the child."

The Department of Homeland Security then determines the next steps for the parent and the child, which could include deportation or release into the U.S.

Judge Sabraw has ordered that the more than 2,000 total immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the border be reunited by July 26.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby