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More Than 550 Separated Migrant Children Remain In U.S. Custody


The latest government figures reveal more than 550 migrant children remain separated from their families. Those numbers come from a court filing this past week in a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal district court in San Diego. The government is under court order to speedily reunify families and to provide weekly updates on the reunification process. Joining us to talk about the latest developments is Tyche Hendricks of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Hello, Tyche.

TYCHE HENDRICKS, BYLINE: Hi. Glad to be with you.

SINGH: Glad you're with us. Well, tell us - more than 550 migrant children still in U.S. custody. Why haven't they been reunified with their families, Tyche?

HENDRICKS: Yeah. It's weeks now since the judge ordered the government to return almost 2,700 children to their parents, and the number as of this week is 565 separated kids still in federal custody. You know, one issue is that, for two thirds of these kids, their parent has already been deported, and the government's been scrambling to locate those parents. And lawyers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement say more than 150 parents actually waived reunification. Maybe they wanted their child to seek asylum on their own.

But that's been a big bone of contention with the ACLU, which has questioned the government. And the ACLU has also questioned another number from the government that says 70 or so parents raised red flags for authorities, maybe because of criminal backgrounds. But, again, the ACLU is saying, like, are these red flags so serious that you can't, you know, reunite the child with their parent?

SINGH: We've been referencing this. A California judge, Dana Sabraw, held another hearing on Friday to get a progress report from the government on the reunification process. So in addition to perhaps bits of details that you've been getting about perhaps the kids, what else came out of this specific hearing, this latest hearing? Does the government have a plan to get these children back to their parents?

HENDRICKS: Yeah. There is a plan that's been crafted over a number of weeks, and the judge has signed off on it, and he feels good that, you know, 2,000 kids are with their parents. Most of them are now being held in ICE family detention in the U.S. and others have been returned to their home country. The government named a team of leaders from different agencies - Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and so forth - to move this forward. And the ACLU has its own steering committee of immigrant advocates and child advocates who are trying to contact the parents and make sure if they've - say they've given up on reunifying with their child, wanting to be sure that that's really what they want.

SINGH: Yeah. So you're touching on that. I was wondering, what is still under dispute between the ACLU and the Trump administration?

HENDRICKS: Well, the lawyers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked the judge to approve a reunification plan that would prevent deported parents from returning to this country to reconnect with their kid. But the lawyers for the ACLU say more than 70 parents were deported after the judge had ordered a halt to deportations. And they say some parents may have abandoned their claims to asylum, accepted deportation thinking that that was the only way to get their kid back and that those parents should be allowed to return and resume their asylum claims. In some other cases, there's actually a companion legal case with making the argument that the children pursuing their own asylum claims need their parent to aid with those cases.

And so, on Friday, Judge Sabraw said he's not inclined to allow deported parents to come back to the U.S. But he sent the government and the ACLU off to sort out their differences and report back to him next week. And he said his most important priority really is reunifying these families.

And there's an interesting quote, something he said to the lawyers for both sides in this conference. He said, it's an enormous undertaking involving a situation of the government's own making, and we'll never be able to come up with a process that restores all the rights as if this incident had never happened. But he said, the overarching concerns are family unity, due process where rights are observed and efficiency. So that's where he stands, and the lawyers are continuing to work incrementally to get these families back together.

SINGH: That's Tyche Hendricks of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Tyche, thanks so much.

HENDRICKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.