SAN DIEGO (CN) – The federal government is carefully reviewing nearly 33,000 cases of children who may have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border a full year before the administration announced its zero tolerance policy, according to a status conference call with a federal judge on Friday.
Previously, the federal government said it would take two years for them to go through the list, but in April this year, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw told government officials they had six months.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is vetting the cases to identify if this large group would fall into an updated class over family separation litigation handled by Sabraw in the Southern District of California, who ordered reunification of the families.
The initial lawsuit identified about 2,800 children separated from their families at the border starting in April 2018 under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.
On Thursday, the federal government said in a joint status update that 2,773 children have either been reunited with their parents or placed with sponsors under that class. Since the last status update in May, seven children have been released from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. One child went back with their parents and the rest were placed with sponsors.
But there’s still more work to do, because in March 2019 Sabraw expanded the class of families to be reunited.
That was due to report from the HHS Office of Inspector General that said more children than previously reported were separated by the Department of Homeland Security, beginning as early as July 2017.
Initially, the federal government said 47,000 immigrant children were placed in federal custody between July 1, 2017 and June 25, 2018 and could be potentially included in the new class.
That figure has since been reduced to 32,972. That is not the total number of children who were separated from their parents, according to the federal government but it’s the entire scope that the government will review to see if those children are eligible to be reunited with their families under the court’s class.
During the status hearing Jonathan White with HHS said, “Wherever we have preliminary indication of separation we have consistently aired on the side of inclusion and put them into datasets.”
White said cases that turned up not being eligible are still being reviewed because analysts say roughly seven out of 1,000 cases shifted from negative to positive. That doesn’t include the thousands of cases that have already been positively identified as being eligible for the expanded class, according to court filings.
Next, the federal government will send the results of its analysis of the potential class members to the American Civil Liberties Union and the nonprofit organizations who are working to help reunite families.
Sabraw said that gives the advocate groups a lot of work to go through.
“Hopefully there will be a great deal of information on your efforts,” Sabraw said to Lee Gelernt from the ACLU and attorney Steve Herzog from the law firm Paul, Weiss who are heading up the steering committee focused on the deported parents.
“I’m looking forward to a status on those matters as well. It’s very encouraging to see this review has gone this quickly and productive,” Sabraw said.
Meanwhile, 21 parents separated from their children want to return to the United States to retrieve them from the U.S. government. The parents were deported without a “meaningful opportunity to seek asylum” according to attorneys for the ACLU.
The 21 parents are part of a larger group of more than 470 parents deported without their children, which the ACLU and other nonprofit organizations have screened to see which parents were not given the opportunity to seek asylum, those who are currently in danger and the ones who have a bona fide asylum claim.
Sabraw said that issue could be taken up at the next status conference on July 12.