Approximately 100 immigrant children under 5 separated from their parents at the border are still being held at facilities and foster homes scattered around the country, even as the U.S. faces a court-imposed Tuesday deadline to reunite them with their parents.
So far, none of those kids separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration have been reunified with their parents in immigration detention, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday.
HHS, the agency responsible for the separated children, is testing parents’ DNA in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers to verify they are in fact parents of kids in HHS custody before they give the kids back to ICE to be with their parents. Azar said HHS is having to expedite its traditional vetting process for parents in order to meet the court’s Tuesday deadline.
“We will comply even if those deadlines prevent us from conducting our standard or even truncated vetting process,” Azar said.
In total the government has separated nearly 3,000 kids from their parents since May under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. Last Tuesday a federal court in California ordered the government to reunite kids under the age of five with their parents by July 10, and kids over the age of five by July 26.
Azar said HHS knows the location of every child in its custody and is working to confirm which kids were separated by the government so that they can be tested and reunited. Normally HHS reviews documents to confirm parent-child relationships, but in order to meet the Tuesday deadline, the agency is using DNA tests.
“We have to protect children from people who would prey on them,” said Jonathan White, the deputy director for children’s programs at HHS. “These DNA results are being used solely for that purpose and no other.”
Parents of children under five who had been detained in facilities sometimes thousands of miles from their children are being moved to ICE facilities closer to them. Azar said the children would be transferred from HHS facilities into ICE custody to be with their parents before Tuesday’s midnight deadline. HHS did not immediately respond to questions about how and when the transfer would happen.
Azar blamed Congress and the judiciary for the government’s current family separation situation, although family separation is a consequence of a Trump administration policy to prosecute every adult who enters the country illegally and hold them in adult detention. He said the only “sure fire way for a parent to remain with their child” is to ask for asylum at a designated port of entry, although many families who have done just that have been separated.
“Any confusion is due to a broken immigration system and court orders,” he said.
While HHS has traditionally had custody over unaccompanied minors who immigrate to the U.S. alone, the agency has been overwhelmed in recent months by the influx of children who the government separated from their parents as part of the zero tolerance policy. Azar conflated the two groups Thursday.
“Dealing with children who are separated from their families, that is the job and we do it,” he said. “This is nothing new.”
The other option for parents whose kids were taken away is to agree to be deported with their kids, abandon their asylum claims and return to the home countries they fled. It is unclear how many parents and kids have been reunified and deported. Some parents in ICE custody have still not been able to communicate with their children, according to VICE News interviews with immigration attorneys.
“Unless we move to a system of open borders, we have to enforce that law," Azar said. "The enforcement of that has consequences.”
Cover image: A mother migrating from Honduras holds her one-year-old child in the back of a transport van after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents Monday, June 25, 2018, near McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)