(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s short-lived effort to end the practice his administration derides as “catch and release” of undocumented immigrants never was fully implemented.
But the White House is still trying to unwind its effects. An administration official said Wednesday night that all "eligible" children under 5 years old who had been separated from their families at the border would be reunited with their parents on Thursday -- two days after a court-ordered deadline.
The official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter, declined to provide a precise number of children. But U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego determined that number to be 63 and ordered Justice Department lawyers to submit an updated report Thursday afternoon.
The slow family reunification is the most visible consequence of Trump’s chaotic policy shift. But even while his family separation policy was in effect, many immigrant families taken into custody while illegally crossing the border were freed to await court dates.
Now, the administration has reverted fully to the approach it condemns. As the government slowly sorts through the logistics of reuniting parents and children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement hands out notices to appear at deportation hearings along with electronic ankle monitors before allowing families to scatter across the U.S.
Just four children had been returned to their parents in time for a July 10 deadline that Sabraw set for the reunion of 102 children under 5 years old with their parents. The judge has given the government until July 26 to accomplish the ambitious goal of reuniting all of the more than 3,000 children taken from parents.
Sabraw on Tuesday rebuked ICE for its slow progress and ordered the agency to speed up the process. He ordered the agency to stop requiring the "onerous" vetting procedures it uses for placing unaccompanied minors with relatives or sponsors, including background checks.
Stymied by Courts
The federal courts, legal protections for children and limits in capacity for appropriate detention facilities have stymied Trump’s goals from the start.
Key among the obstacles is a 1997 settlement of a federal lawsuit known as the Flores agreement. It requires the government to keep children in the “least restrictive conditions” while in government custody and to place them with relatives or family friends “without unnecessary delay.”
The settlement also limits the time children can be held in federal detention to 20 days which, the Trump administration argues, made it necessary to separate families, put parents in immigration detention, and send children to Health and Human Services Department facilities for “unaccompanied” minors.
The House Appropriations Committee added a measure Wednesday to a spending bill making its way through the chamber that would require children brought across the border illegally to be detained until they are reunited with a parent or legal guardian, overriding the Flores settlement.
Released From Detention
During the weeks when officials were separating children from parents whose only violation of the law had been to cross the border, many families were still released into the U.S., just as they would have been before the Trump administration initiated its policy
Administration officials declined to explain on the record how it was determined when to separate families and when not to do so.
Immigration lawyers and advocates said they saw no particular pattern. Families appeared to be kept in federal custody if there was space for them in detention facilities and released if there wasn’t, the advocates said.
On one patch of the border, in McAllen, Texas, the flow of families apprehended and released by immigration authorities remained stable throughout the entire period, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s respite center. About 100 families a day passed through the center, with parents in ankle monitors, before, during and after the family separation policy, she said.
The administration saw family separations and the detention of adults until their deportation hearings as a deterrent to others thinking of crossing the border. An ankle monitor and release into the U.S. for months if not years, does none of that, Homeland Security officials say.
Matthew Albence, executive associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, told reporters Tuesday that ankle monitors, used as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program, have helped keep track of immigrants.
“It has been effective with regard to ensuring appearance at hearings and at meetings,” he said. But he expressed frustration that the court process takes too long to deport immigrants.
“It is not an effective removal tool,” Albence said. “It’s merely used to gain compliance with individuals going through the court process.”
--With assistance from Edvard Pettersson.
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