Feds Ordered to Answer Why Separated Parents’ Info Withheld

Immigrant children play outside a former Job Corps site that now houses them, June 18, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge Friday ordered the federal government to explain why it didn’t share a governmental database containing the most up-to-date information for parents separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, when efforts to reunite the families have been underway for more than a year.

“This is disturbing in that it seems to be readily available information and it was a matter of tapping into it,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, a George W. Bush appointee, said during a status conference in the family separation litigation consolidated in the Southern District of California.

Sabraw has overseen efforts to reunify immigrant families separated by the Trump administration at the U.S.-Mexico border under the since-abandoned “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

The class action, originally brought in 2018 by a Congolese mother separated from her 7-year-old daughter at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, was expanded to include more than 1,000 additional families last year after a report by the Office of Inspector General revealed families had been separated prior to the formal adoption of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Efforts to reunite those families are still underway, with the steering committee of nongovernmental organizations working with the American Civil Liberties Union reporting this week 333 parents believed to have been deported to Central American countries have still not been found.

While an additional 41 parents have been found since the last status conference in the case, steering committee head Steven Herzog told Sabraw on-the-ground efforts to locate parents in Central America have been stymied due to the Covid-19 pandemic and recent hurricanes.

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said during the virtual court hearing Friday only when there was a “global outcry” in October over hundreds of families who remain separated, did the government share spreadsheets containing the most up-to-date information — including phone numbers not previously disclosed — from a database maintained by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. 

“This is not obscure information, it is from a fairly standard database,” Gelernt said.

“Only did we hear from them about additional information right after outcry before the second presidential debate. The fact they’ve been sitting on these phone numbers and addresses seems outrageous,” Gelernt said.

Now the ACLU and its partners searching for missing parents have the information, Gelernt said he is hopeful they will be able to find families.

“We would urge the outgoing administration to do whatever they can in the next month, so families don’t go missing longer than necessary,” Gelernt said.

Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said she was involved in “brainstorming” additional federal databases which may contain updated contact information useful to help reunite families. 

She said EOIR is not one of the immigration agencies which has been involved in the family separation litigation, whereas databases from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services were culled for parents’ information last year.

“It’s something we all wish we would have thought of sooner,” Fabian said.

She said the government had been trying to work with the ACLU since February to understand its process for locating separated families but “we’ve received a lot of pushback on that front and having that process be more cooperative could have been helpful.”

“I do really wish I had thought of that database earlier… I don’t believe there was a neglectful or nefarious intent — we were focusing on the databases in front of us,” Fabian added.

Sabraw ordered the government to provide the court with a declaration detailing what happened and why the “EOIR databases were identified at this late date.”

The next status conference is scheduled for Jan. 15.

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