The Trump administration said Thursday that it had made progress on a court-mandated effort to reunify young children separated from their families at the border, as officials continued dealing with the fallout of its short-lived effort to end a practice it derided as "catch and release" of undocumented immigrants.
Of 103 children under age 5 that the administration had been ordered to reunite with their families by July 10, 57 had been deemed eligible and were returned to their parents by early Thursday, two days after the deadline, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
Another 46 children were deemed ineligible for reunification, including 22 whose adult family members federal authorities determined to pose a potential safety risk. In another dozen cases, the adult accompanying the child was deported before reunification could occur, while in other cases adults remained jailed for other offenses, according to the statement.
"As of this morning, the initial reunifications were completed," Health and Human Services Security Secretary Alex Azar, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a joint statement. "Throughout the reunification process our goal has been the well-being of the children and returning them to a safe environment."
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego had earlier determined the number of eligible children to be 63 and ordered Justice Department lawyers to submit an updated report Thursday afternoon. The difference in the number, according to the release, is because additional children were "determined by HHS, DHS, and DOJ to be ineligible under court-approved criteria."
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 had set for the reunions of young children. 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. Officials from HHS and DHS said Thursday that their agencies are up to the task and will later in the day provide the court with a list of 5- to 17-year-olds the administration has determined are eligible to be reunited to the plaintiffs in the case.
In the meantime, the administration is defending its arduous reunification process, arguing that it needs to thoroughly investigate adults before placing children with them. "The task we're undertaking with this reunification is not about moving one widget to be packaged with another widget. These are children, with 10 fingers and 10 toes," Chris Meekins, chief of staff of HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said on a Thursday conference call with reporters.
"These are also adults. While most adults we are encountering are parents who are perfectly appropriate sponsors for their children, sadly not all are," Meekins added, noting that background checks identified adults convicted of child cruelty, charged with smuggling, and wanted for murder in Guatemala.
Sabraw had rebuked ICE for its slow progress and ordered the agency to speed up the process. The judge ordered the agency to stop requiring the "onerous" vetting procedures it uses for placing unaccompanied minors with relatives or sponsors, including background checks.
The federal courts, legal protections for children and limits in capacity for appropriate detention facilities have stymied President Donald 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.
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."
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Bloomberg's Edvard Pettersson and Justin Sink contributed.