Families separated under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy may have to wait even longer to be reunited.
In Friday court filings, Department of Justice officials say they will have a difficult time meeting two upcoming deadlines for family reunification, and may need to ask a federal judge in California for extensions on them both. The deadlines—July 10th for children under age 5 and July 26th for children over age 5—were part of the judge's ruling last month, which ordered the administration to end family separation practices and reunite all families within 30 days. Friday also marks the deadline by which officials must have connected all parents and children by phone.
Should the federal judge honor the DOJ's requests for more time, department officials say they will come up with an alternate timeline for reunifying families, though it's unclear just how far into the future that timeline will extend.
Part of the challenge, according to a top administration official, seems to be not knowing precisely how many minors remain separated from their parents. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated this week that fewer than 3,000 separated children remained in government custody, but told reporters on a Thursday press call that the department still doesn't have exact figures. Azar's numbers conflict with earlier reports, which stated that closer to 2,000 children had been separated.
Officials argued Friday that one of the main obstacles to meeting the mandatory deadlines has been "confirming parentage," and have asked for leniency "in cases where parentage cannot be confirmed quickly."
The DOJ says it's necessary to vet migrants claiming to be parents separated from their children in order to determine that "the individual has not engaged in any activity that would indicate a potential risk to the child." A child's word, Azar said, isn't enough.
“It is important to remember that information from children can sometimes be unreliable,” he told reporters Thursday.
To this end, Trump administration officials have begun DNA testing asylum seekers via "painless and harmless" cheek swabbing, which they say is meant to protect children and expedite the process. Others say the practice is ethically dubious and worry that the federal government will use the biological data to later criminalize immigrants. HHS officials assure that's not the case.
"We expect that the great majority of these parents are exactly who they claim to be … but we have to protect children from people who would prey on them," Jonathan White, the deputy director for children's programs at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said in a statement. "These DNA results are being used solely for that purpose and no other."
The apparent dysfunction of the stalled operation isn't the doing of the Trump administration, which imposed the family separation practices as part of its larger "zero tolerance" policy, Azar argued. "Any confusion is due to a broken immigration system and court orders," he said.