SAN DIEGO (CN) – A federal judge Tuesday praised the government’s efforts to meet a court-ordered deadline to reunify families separated at the southwest border but sternly reminded government attorneys “this must be a transparent process.”
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw “commended” the federal government for reunifying 1,012 families who were separated along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy on unauthorized immigration.
The deadline for all 2,551 children over age five to be reunited will their parents is Thursday.
But Sabraw did not mince words when addressing the government’s failure to provide detailed lists to the American Civil Liberties Union – which is representing the separated families in a class action out of the Southern District of California – on how many parents have been deported without their kids, released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody or who signed waivers to be deported without their children.
He called the separations the “deeply troubling reality of this case.”
“This should be a transparent process,” Sabraw said. “Some of this information is unpleasant. Large numbers of families were being separated without the forethought for reunification … it appears there is a large number of parents unaccounted for or removed without their child.”
Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian could not provide the judge information on how many of the 463 parents not in the country – after being deported or voluntarily departing – had left the U.S. without their kids.
Sabraw pointed out the figure for parents no longer in the country “could be very significant” since it likely includes parents deported without their children before zero tolerance was formally implemented and there was infrastructure in place to keep track of parents and children.
The number of parents who waived reunification with their children went down slightly – down to 127 Tuesday from 130 parents reported in government figures Monday. Fabian said this was because “some may have changed their mind” about releasing their kids to another relative and wished to be reunited with their children.
Fabian said of the 900 parents with final orders of removal, about 20 had already been deported, but that she “would have to confirm” the figure.
Hundreds of parents were still unaccounted for Tuesday, either having been deported or voluntarily left the country or released by ICE custody and authorities could not get in contact with them to be reunited with their children.
“What would be the explanation for not knowing where the parents are?” Sabraw asked Fabian.
Fabian said the parents could have been transferred into state custody and Health and Human Services officials were not updated.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt raised concerns about how the judge will rule on a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the government from immediately deporting families once they’re reunited.
The ACLU wants families to have seven days to decide how they want to proceed with asylum claims, including whether parents with removal orders might leave their children behind in the U.S. to pursue their own immigration cases.
“Talking to people on the ground, things are really a mess on the ground,” Gelernt said, noting the ACLU planned to submit affidavits from attorneys who had been working at family detention centers.
Gelernt said the government is expected to house 700 family class members at a facility in south Texas and that there’s “no way in a couple of days we can provide meaningful consultation” on legal rights to those families.
Justice Department attorney Scott Stewart said the government “would take issue with the suggestion things are a mess on the ground, we strongly contest that characterization.”
Sabraw will address the temporary restraining order at a status conference Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, eight asylum seekers are suing a private prison group, the city of Adelanto and the federal government in a civil rights lawsuit over the conditions they experienced while in federal custody.
Josue Mateo Lemus Campus, from El Salvador, and Alexander Antonio Burgos Mejia, from Honduras, were both detained in a private prison, operated by the GEO Group in San Bernardino County where they were pepper sprayed and beaten by guards for staging a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical care and edible food.
The two men were joined by immigration advocates and faith-based leaders at a news conference on Tuesday. Their civil rights lawsuit seeks to bring an end to the mistreatment of asylum seekers, according to the complaint.
They are represented by Los Angeles-based attorney Rachel Steinback.
Los Angeles reporter Nathan Solis contributed to this report.