The federal government has caught at least five adults whose claims to be parents of illegal immigrant children were disproven with DNA tests. Eight more had serious criminal records, including murder and kidnapping charges, that made them unfit to take back their own children, the government said Tuesday.
Those were among the tougher cases the government has had to sort through as it rushed to make a judge’s deadline for reuniting the youngest of the children separated in the aftermath of President Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy.
Federal officials signaled Tuesday that they were scrapping the policy for dozens of families, preparing to release them rather than detain them, as the president had promised.
Yet even with that retreat, the government was still struggling to meet the deadline imposed by Judge Dana Sabraw.
Just 38 of the original 102 separated children under age 5 were guaranteed to be reunited by Tuesday, officials said. Another 16 were on the bubble for reunification, the government said, saying it depended on whether they were able to finish out a series of checks to make sure the children weren’t heading to unsafe conditions.
Judge Sabraw told them to speed it up, saying they could cut corners on their usual process in order to get the kids back with people who claimed to be their parents.
“These are firm deadlines. They’re not aspirational goals,” the judge said during a hearing Tuesday to get an update on progress.
Judge Sabraw ruled last month that separating families violated illegal immigrant parents’ rights. He blocked separations going forward and gave the government 14 days — until Tuesday — to reunite children under 5 who’d been separated and were still in government custody. He set another deadline of July 26 for juveniles ages 5 to 17 to be reconnected.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 children separated from parents are in government custody, with 102 of them falling into this week’s under-5 deadline.
Government officials insisted they were working in good faith.
Of the 102 children under the immediate deadline, they said four had already been released by Tuesday afternoon and another 34 were about to be turned over to parents. Sixteen children were awaiting final DNA tests on people who’d cleared background checks but still needed to have their relationship confirmed, while one other parent had a criminal background check that was still being resolved.
Another 12 children belonged to parents who’d already been deported, and the government was unsure how to handle those — other than to try to reach them in their home countries. And eight parents had been released into the U.S., and needed full safety checks, the government said.
In the final 27 cases, officials say, they’ve ruled out reunification, at least for now.
Ten parents are serving time in federal or state jails or prisons and can’t be reunited until their sentences are done. One child’s parent has been missing for more than a year — and it’s possible both the child and parent are American citizens.
Eight parents had major criminal records that made them unsuitable candidates to take custody of their children, one parent was deemed a danger for child abuse, one parent lived in a home where another occupant had a child sex-abuse charge pending, and another parent has a communicable disease that must be cleared up.
Then there are five of the 102 cases where adults had claimed to be parents, but those claims were disproved once the government started to investigate by DNA tests.
Officials said those cases are evidence for why the government needs to do extensive vetting before turning children over.
“Our process may not be as quick as some would like but there is no question it is protecting children,” said Chris Meekins, a high-ranking official at the Health and Human Services Department.
In some of the toughest cases, Mr. Meekins said, they have found two instances of men who assert parentage but DNA tests come back negative.
He said it’s possible the men don’t know they aren’t the biological fathers. In those cases, if the adults are proved to be parents through other means such as birth certificates, they’ll bury the DNA results, saying it’s not their role to interfere in whatever the family situation is.
Judge Sabraw, though, was not impressed with the government’s lengthy checks.
He ordered a “streamlined approach” for vetting parents, saying DNA tests should only be used if there’s a specific reason to suspect fraud.
“The court could not have been clearer that business as usual is not acceptable,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer handling the case for the families on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The Trump administration must get these children and parents reunited.”
In pushing to meet the deadlines the government signaled it’s ended the zero tolerance policy of holding illegal immigrants until they can be deported, at least in these cases.
Instead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expects to quickly release most of the parents and children. In some cases the parents will be given ankle bracelets to try to make sure they appear for their immigration court proceedings.
Matthew Albence, the executive associate director at ICE for Enforcement and Removal Operations, said they don’t have high hopes that will lead to the people being deported when the time comes. He said ICE released 80,000 people under alternatives to detention last year, and just 2,400 were actually deported.
“That is not an effective removal tool,” he said.
Trump critics, though, said deportations aren’t as important as reuniting children and parents — and they said it was a black eye on the Trump administration that it missed the court’s deadlines.
“This is an abject failure and a betrayal of American values,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “Congress has a moral obligation to stop this, since the Trump administration has demonstrated that it lacks the competency to do so.:”
The government’s struggles to reunite the first 102 children led critics to say they have no faith the reunification of more than 2,000 juveniles 5 and older will be smoother.
Federal officials declined to give reporters a timeline for those reunifications Tuesday, saying they would wait for more guidance from the court.