Facing a legal deadline to return young migrant children separated from their parents at the border, federal officials began reuniting them on Tuesday, with a goal of returning up to 34 children to their families by the end of the day.
There were widespread reports of glitches and delays — in one case, because a computer broke down and five mothers could not be fitted with ankle bracelets — and it was not clear that those initial 34 made it back to their parents.
“We thought this would be a pretty feel-good, easy thing and then it turned into a nine-hour drama,” said Andrea Sáenz, a lawyer in Brooklyn whose clients had to wait at least another day to see their children because of the computer problem.
The relatively slow pace of reversing the Trump administration’s family separation policy fell short of an original court order, which had directed that all children under 5 — a total of 102, by the government’s latest count — be returned to their families by Tuesday.
Chris Meekins, a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services, pointed to safety concerns to explain the delay in the reunions and insisted that the process could not be rushed.
“Our process may not be as quick as some might like but there is no question that it is protecting children,” Mr. Meekins, the chief of staff of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said in a conference call with reporters.
In some cases, he said, “If we had just reunited kids with the adults, we would be putting them in the care of a rapist, a kidnapper, a child abuser, and someone who was charged with murder in their home nation.”
In all cases, the authorities said, reunited families were being released from custody and equipped with ankle monitors to make sure they appeared at scheduled court hearings on their immigration cases.
The scheduled reunions were taking place at various sites around the country. Children have been detained in shelters far from their parents, many of whom were also detained as part of President Trump’s zero-tolerance border enforcement policy.
Also on Tuesday, a plane carrying 24 Guatemalan migrants — families that had been separated after crossing into the United States, then reunited and deported — landed in Guatemala City.
One of the biggest operators of migrant-youth shelters in the country, Southwest Key Programs, said its staff had dispatched several children from its shelters to return to their parents on Tuesday.
“Our staff came in early, made sure every backpack was full and every child got a hug and a goodbye,” Juan Sánchez, the nonprofit group’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “And the kids hugged us back. They were excited to be on their way to be with their families. And we were thrilled for them.”
In Phoenix, white vans with tinted windows pulled out of two shelters around sunrise, and more vans were loaded later in the morning — all presumably loaded with children and bound for an ICE office in central Phoenix where parents awaited, according to immigration attorneys and advocates.
At least four men from Honduras and Guatemala — all of them with children in detention — had been transported to the ICE facility from a detention center in Eloy, Ariz. at about 3 a.m., said their lawyer, Bridget Cambria. “This is life-altering,” she said. “They all have legitimate immigration cases, but haven’t been able to focus on anything else but their children.”
Four Guatemalan boys — ages 6 months, 5, 8 and 12 — were reunified at an Arizona ICE processing facility with their mother, who had been in detention in Texas, said Golden McCarthy, program director at the Florence Project, the only organization that offers legal representation to immigrant detainees in Arizona.
The final number of children who would be returned on Tuesday was still in flux. Mr. Meekins said that 14 adults were disqualified from reunification during the vetting process, including eight with serious criminal backgrounds including histories of child cruelty and drug crimes, five who were determined not to be the actual parent of the child, and one who was being treated for a communicable disease that would have made reunification unsafe.
There were logistical challenges to the reunifications, too, according to officials close to the operation who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The federal agency that oversees the care of migrant children, the Department of Health and Human Services, was still conducting background checks on parents until the very last moment on Tuesday morning. The final number to be reunited had changed as recently as 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Even after the parents were granted approval to take custody of their children, the operation faced other challenges. It required coordination between multiple federal agencies and government contractors — groups that have struggled to work together smoothly since the family separations began weeks ago, to the frustration of immigrant advocates and the federal judge overseeing the court case challenging the Trump administration’s handling of migrant families.
On Monday, the plan had been for the shelters where the children are housed to transport the children to undisclosed locations in various states and to hand the children over to the Department of Homeland Security. But on Tuesday morning, a person familiar with the reunifications said the plan had changed: Officials with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were now preparing to pick up the children at the various sites and shelters.
As the reunions began, there were new mix-ups.
At one shelter, the plain-clothed ICE personnel who pulled up in vans ran out of child-safety seats, and were preparing to make a second trip to the site in order to pick up all the children eligible for reunifications, causing a delay.
Judge Dana M. Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego had set a deadline of Tuesday for the youngest children to be returned, but government lawyers said Monday that of the 102 such children now in government custody, the authorities had been able to identify, locate and vet the parents of only 54. The court order requires family reunifications for all 3,000 children in federal custody before the end of the month.
At a status conference on Tuesday, Judge Sabraw was largely satisfied with the government’s progress but urged it to move more quickly in some cases.
“These are firm deadlines; they are not aspirational goals,” Judge Sabraw said, adding, “I would like the process to continue as expeditiously as it has been with paramount focus on the children’s welfare.”
Specifically, the judge said that separated families should not be subject to the same level of scrutiny as friends or extended family members of children who enter the country alone as unaccompanied minors and apply to sponsor the children. In those cases, the government investigates the backgrounds not only of the prospective sponsor, but also everyone else living in the household where the child would live.
“These parents are responsible for their own children,” he said. “Many of these determinations we must assume are subject to the parents’ judgment and consideration.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump weighed in on the pending reunions, claimed Democrats want “open borders” and defended ICE, which has been the focus of protests, with widespread calls for abolishing the agency. Mr. Trump made the remarks before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House. He was asked by reporters for his reaction to officials missing the court-ordered deadline for reunions.
“Well, I have a solution,” Mr. Trump replied. “Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.”
A reporter asked him if he was suggesting that the children be punished.
“I’m saying this, very simply: We have laws,” Mr. Trump said. “We have borders. Don’t come to our country illegally. It’s not a good thing. And as far as ICE is concerned, the people that are fighting ICE, it’s a disgrace. These people go into harm’s way. There is nobody under greater danger than the people from ICE.”
The children involved in Tuesday’s reunions are some of the youngest immigrants caught up in the Trump administration’s family separation policy. They had been apprehended with their relatives at the border, separated from their families and detained in so-called tender-age shelters for children under the age of 12. They have been separated from their loved ones, in many cases, for weeks.
The Texas-based nonprofit that has raised more than $20 million to help families separated at the border said Tuesday that it plans to offer the money as bond payments to release thousands of mothers who remain in custody.
Leaders of the group, Raices, said they planned to offer to pay as much of the money as was necessary to reunite an estimated 2,500 children and mothers. They have already paid nearly $100,000 in bonds for roughly 18 people who are in custody with the Department of Homeland Security.
Officials with Raices acknowledge that they may face resistance from the Department of Homeland Security in accepting bond payments. But they hope to use the issue to keep attention on the children who remain scattered across the country, and to press Congress to take action.
“We will not simply fork over a check and hope for the best,” said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of Raices. “We expect that the government will act in good faith, as the American people are demanding, and sit down with us, put all of our cards on the table.”
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