The Trump administration touted the successful completion of the court-mandated reunification of undocumented children under the age of five with their families, despite almost half of the children being declared as ineligible for reunification.
Two days after missing the deadline set by the U.S. District Court of Southern California, officials representing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told reporters on Thursday that as of as of 7 a.m. Eastern, 57 of the 103 separated children under the age of five in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement had been reunited with their parents.
That is six fewer than the 63 children deemed eligible for reunification by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego in June. According to the release, the shortfall is the result of additional children under five being “determined by HHS, DHS, and DOJ to be ineligible under court-approved criteria.”
The remaining 46 children have been deemed “ineligible” for family reunification, with reasons ranging from parental criminal records to the parent in question to having already been deported.
Chris Meekins, chief of staff for HHS’s Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, told reporters that reunification was moving slowly out of care, not ineptitude. “The task we’re undertaking with this reunification is not about moving one widget to be packaged with another widget,” Meekins said. “These are children, with ten fingers and ten toes.”
While most of the adults separated from their children “are perfectly appropriate sponsors for their children, sadly not all are,” Meekins added.
Without safeguards like DNA testing and criminal background checks, “seven children would have been reunited with a parent who was not their parent,” Meekins said, and 11 would have been reunited with parents who have serious criminal charges and convictions ranging from kidnapping and human smuggling to domestic violence and murder.
(Earlier this week, DHS noted that it was possible some of the legal parents whose DNA tests showed that they were not biologically related to their child weren’t aware that they were not the biological parent of their child. HHS did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast regarding how many times the department believes this has occurred, or whether that information is being disseminated to the families in question.)
According to HHS and DHS, of the 46 children under the age of five ineligible for reunification, 22 were deemed so due to safety concerns posed by the adults in question, and 24 are deemed ineligible “due to circumstances of the adults in question.” Of the latter group, 12 children’s parents have already been deported, 11 are in state or federal custody for unspecified offenses likely related to immigration status, and one parent’s location has been unknown for more than a year.
Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportations unit, told reporters that for the 12 children whose parents have already been deported, the U.S. government had no plans to reunite them on American soil.
“We don’t have the legal authority,” Albence said, adding that many of those parents had been reached in their home countries but insisted that their children remain in the United States. “Those individuals declined to do so,” Albence said, of parents who had made the journey across the border with the goal of seeking asylum for their children. “They’re not going to take their child back with them once they’ve accomplished the smuggling.”
In a joint statement, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated that the goal of the so-called “zero tolerance” policy that separates children from their parents at the American border has been to discourage illegal immigration.
“Our message has been clear all along: Do not risk your own life or the life of your child by attempting to enter the United States illegally,” the cabinet officials said. “Apply lawfully and wait your turn.”
Judge Sabraw has set a final deadline two weeks from Thursday for the government to reunite the more than 3,000 children under the age of 18 from their parents, a deadline that Albence and Meekins said, without elaborating, will be met.