SAN DIEGO (CN) – A federal judge in California asked the government Friday to give 12 hours’ notice before reuniting children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border with their families so no one is left stranded as agencies prepare to reunite nearly 3,000 detained children.
Hearing the lawsuit Ms. L. et al., v. U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw also said parents should not have to pay for DNA tests or travel costs associated with the reunification process.
Earlier this week, the federal government reunited 57 of 103 detained children under the age of five with their parents – several days after Sabraw’s deadline. The government says it’s unable to reunite the remaining children for several reasons including parents’ criminal histories, parents being in federal or state custody or already deported, and discoveries that the adults traveled across the border with children who weren’t theirs.
The process has not been without its troubles, and attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union said that the government was not forthcoming with information in the reunification process, which left one mother stranded at a bus stop with her six-month-old child.
According to the ACLU, the mother was left by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and was only able to get a bus ticket after midnight and multiple phone calls to her attorney.
With the next group of about 2,900 children between 5 and 17 years old set to be reunited with their families by July 26, Sabraw walked through the process so far and asked what can be done next to make the process run more efficiently. He agreed with an ACLU attorney that there should be 12-hour notice to parents and advocates as to the time and place for reunions.
Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said the next batch of reunifications will be different, as parents in ICE custody will be reunited with their children at a handful of federal facilities.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said it’s not enough for notice to be given, but there should also be individual information provided by the government about those being released so a faith-based group on the ground can rent hotel rooms ahead of time or alert relatives.
“So much of this is common sense and common courtesy,” he said. “There shouldn’t be anything mysterious about the process. Parents and children should not be reunited and then have no resources, have no one there to reintegrate them.”
The judge also said parents should not be asked to cover the cost of DNA testing or travel expenses when they are reunited with the children, as some parents encountered in the last round of reunifications according to the ACLU.
Fabian said, “That’s a big ask on the part of (Health and Human Services),” adding a field representative from the Office of Refugee Reunification usually makes that determination.
Sabraw ordered that to stop.
The ACLU has also asked the government to provide daily updates on the reunification process, and wants Sabraw to order paid counseling for the detained children.
“Defendant must establish a fund to pay for professional mental health counseling, which will be used to treat children who are suffering from severe trauma as a result of their forcible separation from their parents,” the ACLU said in the joint statement filed with the court Thursday.
“The amount can be set at a later time subject to further negotiations between the parties and rulings from the court. Although many medical professionals have graciously offered pro bono services for the children, who plainly are in desperate need of counseling, these medical professionals should not have to assume the costs associated with the government’s policy, especially not their out-of-pocket expenses.”
In a brief filed after Friday’s hearing, the government said it will try to limit the number of sites where reunions will take place and agreed to simplify the vetting process to meet the court’s deadline while also ensuring the children’s safety.
The government promised interviews will last about 15 minutes. After vetting, field teams will work to move the child to the same location as their parent within a day or two. This will be coordinated between multiple government agencies.
Once this plan is fully operational 200 children will be processed per day, the government said.