Administration tries to meet deadline to reunite families separated at border

EL PASO, Texas — With only hours left before a court-ordered deadline, the Trump administration on Thursday reunited at least two dozen more migrant families whose separation on the Mexico border drew worldwide condemnation and forced the government to ease its "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

Some children who had not seen their parents in weeks or months seemed slow to accept that they would not be abandoned again. One father who was reunited last week said his young daughter did not believe that he would not leave her a second time.

"I think that some of the children very quickly attach. Others, there's a distance. There's this caution, this lack of certitude, and part of it is not understanding what happened," said Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House, an immigrant-assistance center in El Paso that has received about 25 families each day this week.

Authorities have identified 2,551 children 5 and older who may be covered by a court order that requires them to be reunited with their parents by the end of Thursday. The effort was expected to fall short, partly because hundreds of parents may have already been deported without their children.

But by focusing only those deemed by the government to be "eligible" for reunification, federal officials were expected to claim success.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the separated families, said the government should not be congratulating itself for meeting its "self-defined" deadline.

"The government shouldn't be proud of the work they're doing on reunification," he said. "It should just be, 'We created this cruel, inhumane policy ... now we're trying to fix it in every way we can and make these families whole."

As of Tuesday, 1,012 parents had been reunited with children in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hundreds more had been cleared and were just waiting on transportation. The government was expected to provide an updated count later Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog said it would review the separation of families, along with the conditions at Border Protection facilities where migrant children are held, in response to scores of congressional requests to do so.

For the last two weeks, children have been arriving steadily at ICE locations in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to be reunited with parents. Faith-based and other groups have provided meals, clothing, legal advice and plane and bus tickets. The families are generally released, and parents are typically given ankle-monitoring bracelets and court dates to appear before an immigration judge.

But confusion and fear linger. Jose Dolores Munoz, 36, from El Salvador, was reunited with his 7-year-old daughter last Friday, nearly two months after they were separated. His daughter cries when he leaves the house because she thinks he's not coming back.

"She is afraid," Munoz said in Spanish. "Yesterday I left her crying, she is telling me, 'You are not coming back. You are lying. You are leaving me.'"

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego commended the government Tuesday for its recent efforts, calling it "a remarkable achievement." Yet Sabraw also seized on the government's assertion that 463 parents may be outside the United States. The Justice Department said this week that the number was based on case files and was under review, signaling it could change.

"It is the reality of a policy that was in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people," said Sabraw, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush.

Lourdes de Leon, who turned herself in to immigration authorities, was deported to her native Guatemala on June 7 but her 6-year-old son, Leo, remained in the U.S.

De Leon said Guatemalan consular officials told her signing a deportation order would be the easiest way to reunite with Leo.

"He is in a shelter in New York," de Leon said. "My baby already had his hearing with a judge who signed his deportation eight days ago. But I still do not know when they are going to return him to me."

Immigration attorneys said they had advocates on the ground in Central America to help parents who were deported without their children. And Gelernt said the ACLU would go looking for all of the 463 parents to determine whether they intentionally left without their children.

"I think it's going to be really hard detective work," he said. "And hopefully we're going to find them."

Both sides were due in court Friday, when the judge was going to decide whether to ban deportations of families for seven days after they are reunified so that parents could have time to discuss their options.

Late last month, Sabraw ordered a nationwide halt to family separations, which President Donald Trump effectively did on his own June 20 following an international outcry. Sabraw issued a 14- day deadline to reunite children under 5 with their parents and 30 days for children 5 and older.

On Friday, family attorney would begin turning their attention to those who weren't reunited — parents who had a criminal record, parents who were no longer in the U.S. and children who were handed over to other sponsors, Gelernt said.