The Trump administration missed its deadline to reunite children under age 5 separated from their families as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, and now, federal officials said some of the young children could remain alone because their parents have criminal histories or have already been deported.
A little more than half, or 57, of the 103 "tender-age" kids were reunited with their parents by Thursday morning — two days after the court-ordered deadline to return them all — Trump administration officials said on a press call. Of the 46 young children who remain in government custody, dozens might never see their parents again and instead may be forced to navigate the complex and lengthy process of finding a sponsor in the U.S.
As the Trump administration continues to struggle to reunite more kids, government officials face another court-ordered deadline on the horizon: By July 26, more than 2,000 kids age 5-17 whom the government took away from their parents must be reunited.
The government has determined that 11 kids in the under-5 group can’t be reunited because their parents have criminal histories, although officials wouldn’t clarify exactly what kinds of crimes make a parent ineligible to get their child back.
Health and Human Services (HHS) official Chris Meekins said one parent had a DUI on his or her record, another was charged with smuggling, another was convicted of child cruelty, and another was wanted for murder in Guatemala.
“I’m not going to go through every one of the 11, but those are representative of each and every case that we have and the seriousness of the crimes that are the reason we aren’t going to reunite them with those parents,” Meekins said.
In another case, HHS said the parent was alleged to have abused the child. Eleven other kids have parents who are still incarcerated in adult prisons and jails for reasons unrelated to their illegal entry.
Seven kids immigrated with adults who the government determined weren’t their parents. Meekins wouldn’t clarify whether the adults were other family members, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles.
“I’m not going to individually go through exactly who they were,” he said.
Some families aren’t even in the same country anymore. Twelve children have parents who agreed to be deported, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and officials said Thursday the government is working to contact them. If they can be reached, they’ll face the difficult decision of whether to request that their children be deported back to the country they fled together so they can be reunited — or to leave them in U.S. government custody.
For kids who remain in the U.S. alone, they’ll be tossed into the lengthy HHS sponsorship process for unaccompanied minors. The kids will remain in HHS facilities while officials screen any potential relatives or foster parents the kids could live with in the U.S.
“We continue to go through the normal sponsorship process,” Meekins said. “So we’ll look to see if they have another parent or legal guardian within the U.S. We will look to see if they have another family member.”
Other families might be more fortunate. Three kids under 5 may be able to see their parents again at some point because the government cited temporary situations as the reasons they can’t be reunified now. One falsified the child’s birth certificate, according to the government, and officials are determining whether the child and adult are, in fact, related. Another parent is in ICE custody being treated for a contagious illness. Another child’s parent planned to live in a house with an adult who’s charged with child sex abuse.
Enormous uncertainty surrounds the case of one child who has been in HHS custody for more than a year and whose parent the government can’t find. Officials admitted in court papers earlier this week that they have reason to believe both the parent and the child are U.S. citizens. DHS did not respond to a VICE News request for information about this case.
So far, chaos and confusion have marked the government’s efforts to reverse months of family separation. After a federal court ordered all kids under age 5 be returned to their parents by July 10, and all kids over 5 by July 26, government officials had to review the files of each child in their care to determine whether they had been separated from a parent. Kids and parents aren’t tracked together in the government’s system, and different government agencies had to work together to background-check and DNA-test the parents when necessary to make sure it was safe to give the child back.
The government arranged the 57 reunifications on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday behind closed doors at ICE field offices around the country. Lawyers and advocates coordinating travel for families scrambled to keep up with the last minute plans. Parents now wear ankle monitors and await the next step in their asylum process.
Cover image: A child from Honduras is brought to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Two boys and a girl who had been in temporary foster care in Grand Rapids have been reunited with their Honduran fathers after they were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border about three months ago. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)