SAN DIEGO (CN) – Despite assurances from the Justice Department that immigration officials “as soon as possible” would identify immigrant families separated at the Mexican border nearly a year before the “zero tolerance” policy was announced, a federal judge on Thursday set a six-month deadline for the government to identify the families.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who has been presiding over family separation litigation in the Southern District of California since the initial lawsuit was brought in February 2018, gave the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the green light to start identifying families who may have been separated at the border as early as July 2017.
Sabraw set a six-month deadline to complete the identification process, subject to “good cause” if Jonathan White — the HHS official overseeing the effort — determines the interagency effort between HHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection can’t be completed in half a year.
“I think it can be done, but it is important for all government actors to have a deadline and a timeframe and I intend to stand on it unless you indicate good cause for an extension,” Sabraw told White during a status conference in his courtroom Thursday afternoon.
The order comes after a report by the HHS Office of Inspector General revealed in January that thousands more children than previously reported may have been separated by the Department of Homeland Security, beginning as early as July 2017.
That revelation prompted the American Civil Liberties Union, class counsel in San Diego —to seek to expand the class to include the additional separated families, a request Sabraw granted last in March this year.
Sabraw rejected that suggestion Thursday in setting the six-month deadline for officials to review case files for some 47,000 immigrant children taken into custody from July 1, 2017, to June 25, 2018.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, with the organization’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in court Thursday he believed the identification process could be completed in as little as three months, “but we are willing to go along with” the six-month deadline.
The HHS’ White testified Thursday that the process to reunite the additional families is “fundamentally” different than the process undertaken last year after Sabraw ordered the reunification of families last summer.
White said the process will be more difficult because the children are not in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, so officials cannot meet with them in person to conduct interviews.
“It greatly increases the importance of the information contained in government records … those kinds of documents are much more important,” White said. “We need to strive to have even more robust accuracy and comprehensiveness in our review of records.”
Information will be culled from HHS, ICE and CBP to determine if they were separated, White said.
He said he anticipated there would be “little ambiguity” as to whether a child had been separated from a parent who is a potential class member once data from the three agencies are reviewed.
He said more staff will be hired to review records and create a statistical analysis of the data from the immigration agencies. But White said caseworkers should not be put on the job, as it could hinder them from getting children in government custody quickly placed with sponsors.
He said immigration detainment camps nationwide are at 97% of capacity, though credible news reports this week reported there were thousands of empty beds at shelters, particularly away from the southern border.
“It’s very important for children in our care right now that their case managers not be pulled into any other matter,” White said. “We don’t want to exceed the maximum capacity and have children piling up at border stations.”
Government officials said it would be too expensive to send people from the crowded border camps to the thousands of empty beds in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the north.
Another status conference in the case is set for May 17.