WASHINGTON (CN) – In contrast to the month-long process of reuniting separated minors with their parents, some attorneys have been able to prompt the government to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border within a matter of days, and most recently, in a matter of hours.
On Friday, the government reunited Norma Amabilia Lopez-Sales with her 9-year-old daughter in Atlanta less than 24 hours after attorneys with McFadden & Shoreman and Nexus Derechos Humanos Attorneys Inc. filed a petition for habeas corpus on her behalf in the District of Columbia.
The reunification came six days before a court-ordered deadline imposed by a federal judge in San Diego requiring the government to reunite all children over 5 separated from their parents by July 26.
Mike Donovan, president of Nexus Services Inc., says the lawsuits filed in the District of Columbia could be moving more quickly because they are being filed on behalf of specific children and parents, rather than seeking a declaratory judgment against the government encompassing multiple children.
They are also seeking monetary damages, unlike the San Diego case.
“Losing a habeas petition for one alien child therefore could have an impact on all of the children that are being held by ORR under this unconscionable policy,” Donovan said in a phone interview, abbreviating the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Donovan noted, however, that he can’t say for sure why reunifications are happening more quickly for the cases filed in the District of Columbia.
“What I do know is that every time we have filed them, they return the child,” he added.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Office of Refugee Resettlement, did not respond to a request for comment about why it moved to reunite Ms. Lopez-Sales with her daughter so quickly.
According to Donovan, the petition was filed at 11:30 p.m. on July 12. By 10:30 the following morning the government had said it would reunite the mother and daughter by 4 p.m. that day.
Nexus attorney Mario Williams confirmed in an email Monday morning that the two were in fact reunited on Friday.
During a press call with reporters on July 5, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar said the department had assigned more than 230 agency personnel to help with reunification efforts, along with 100 case managers.
But despite the government’s efforts and the looming July 26 deadline, Donovan says Nexus plans to file 12 more habeas petitions in the District of Columbia this week, and 12 more the following week – well beyond the nationwide July 26 deadline.
With no plans to slow down, Donovan said Nexus is moving full speed ahead because their strategy seems to be working, and because they have doubts about whether the government is fully complying with the San Diego court order.
Of the 2,551 children identified as potential class members in that case, the government said Thursday that only 1,606 are eligible for reunification. So far, only 364 have been reunified.
But the strategy employed by Nexus only applies to parents who have been released on bond, many of them after passing a credible fear interview after seeking asylum.
Ms. Lopez-Sales, for example, successfully made a credible fear claim after fleeing violence in Guatemala and was deemed not to pose a danger to the community, or be a flight risk.
But after being released on bond the government refused to reunite her with her daughter, identified only as “D” in the July 20 petition, unless she signed a form agreeing that the two would be deported back to Guatemala together.
“Out of unspeakable fear for her daughter’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being, she nearly signed the document; but she didn’t, only because other asylum seekers in her detention pod warned her that the document was a trick,” the petition says.
According to Donovan, the parents Nexus is helping first fill out paperwork, which is then submitted to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the social worker at the facility holding the separated child.
After that, Nexus sends a demand letter to ORR. If the child is not returned within one week, they file a habeas petition followed by a motion for a temporary restraining order 24 to 48 hours later, which generally leads to a prompt hearing on the motion.
Donovan says they’ve sent seven demand letters so far. In three of those cases, the government reunited the families without court intervention. In the other four cases, the families were reunited after a lawsuit was filed.
“This is proof certain that it does not take 30 days or more to release these children. When the government has to they do it quite rapidly,” Donovan said. “And they should for all of these kids. We need to put this dark place in our history behind us.”