By Bianca Bruno
SAN DIEGO – A federal judge Friday praised the joint plan by federal officials and the American Civil Liberties Union to quickly reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw called the plans for reunifying parents deported without their children “impressive.” He said the fact the Office for Refugee Resettlement has been in contact in the last week with 299 of the 386 deported parents is “a very, very encouraging number.”
“That would indicate to me that the government has put in an enormous amount of work in the last seven days,” Sabraw said.
But the judge implored both parties involved in the class action filed on behalf of the parents of separated families to “pay particular attention and make particular effort” to locate 26 deported parents whose whereabouts is still unknown.
“That number will hopefully be reduced to zero,” Sabraw said.
Justice Department attorney Scott Stewart told Sabraw the government will be “looking to foreign governments to help locate people who are hard to find.”
Another 51 parents have been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody into the U.S. but have not yet been contacted by officials about being reunited with their children. ORR is working with ICE to get contact information for those parents.
In a status update filed Thursday, Justice Department attorneys designated leaders at each agency that will be involved in the reunification process – Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, State Department and Justice Department – who will make up the Reunification Coordination Group for deported parents and their children currently being cared for by ORR.
The delayed plan comes after Sabraw chastised the government last week for failing to submit a detailed plan on how it was going to reunify the families it separated and instead outlining a process which relied heavily on the ACLU to reunite families.
In its plan Thursday, the government said it will first determine if reunification can be “greenlighted” after ensuring the parent is who they say they are and there are no safety concerns for the child in reuniting the family.
It would then be determined if parents want to be reunified with their child and if so, the child would be transported to their home country after the child’s immigration procedures “are completed in the ordinary course.”
The ACLU has also designated its own steering committee, headed by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to work with the government on reunifications. The nongovernmental organizations Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission and Justice in Motion will also help with facilitating communication between parents and kids.
After some back-and-forth during Friday’s hearing between Stewart and ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Lee Gelernt over whether the government can immediately start implementing its plan reunify families, Sabraw found the plan should move forward with objections by the ACLU “worked out informally” unless the parties cannot reach an agreement and require a ruling by Sabraw.
The judge reminded both sides the end goal of family reunification requires “collaboration and sharing information” and said if the ACLU – in its own efforts to work with nonprofits to locate parents – gets new information it must share it with the government agencies.
“Both sides are really working collaboratively which is absolutely essential,” Sabraw said.
“It’s obviously important the parties share information, it’s a two-way street. I’m expecting open and clear and regular communication back and forth between the parties,” he added.
Another status conference is scheduled for Aug. 17.