Separated Families In Southern California: What's Happened, And What Comes Next

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has until the end of today to comply with a federal court order to reunite more than 2,500 migrant children ages 5 to 17 with their parents.

The children were separated from their parents at the border in recent months as part of the Trump administration's strict immigration enforcement. The separations led to widespread national and international outrage, forcing President Trump to rescind the policy.

We have a breakdown of how we got here, how things stand now and what's ahead for the migrant families separated at the U.S. border.

BRINGING FAMILIES BACK TOGETHER

The government has made some progress in unifying the families. But with the deadline looming, it's clear many will not be reunited in time.

According to court documents, as of Thursday morning more than 1,400 children had been reunited with parents in immigration custody under the reunification plan. Some families have been released from custody, while others are being detained together by immigration officials. In a press call Thursday afternoon, federal officials said about 223 families had been placed in family detention in Texas.

Officials also said in court documents that 378 children had been discharged from federal shelters to "other appropriate circumstances," such as being placed with a parent not in custody or with another relative in the country.

Still, more than 700 children held in federal shelters will not be returned to their parents right away. This includes the children of hundreds of parents who have been deported. The parents of 431 children are no longer in the country, according to court documents Thursday. A federal official on the press call confirmed these parents were deported.

Other families the government said were ineligible for reunification include a small number of parents with criminal records, parents whose location is still being determined and parents who according to the government waived reunification with their children. Advocates have raised questions about how this waiver process was conducted.

WHAT THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION HAS BEEN DOING TO COMPLY

Government attorneys and officials have reported progress to a federal judge monitoring the reunions during regular hearings in San Diego. That's where the ACLU filed suit to reunite the separated families.

Under orders by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, officials have been working to match up parents in the custody of immigration officials with children who were placed in federal shelters. On Tuesday afternoon, officials told the judge they had reunited 1,012 families so far, and that more than 500 parents had been vetted and were pending reunification with their kids.

Sabraw commended the administration on making the progress it has. However, he asked the government for details on the more than 900 parents deemed "ineligible" to be reunified with their kids immediately, including a list of parents already deported without their children.

Officials have deemed some parents ineligible for reunions for other reasons. The government said Tuesday that 64 parents have criminal records that make them ineligible. Others can't be accounted for. The judge asked about 37 children for whom parents had not been identified; a government attorney said she could not confirm it was still that number, but that some minors had not yet been matched to a parent.

The judge also ordered the government to provide a list of parents who've been released from immigration custody, and a list of parents who officials say waived their right to be reunited with their children. The ACLU has raised concerns about these parents, saying they may have made this decision and been deported without fully knowing their rights.

WHERE ARE REUNITED FAMILIES GOING? ARE THEY ALL BEING RELEASED?

Many — but not all — of the reunited families have been released. Some parents are fitted with ankle monitors. NGOs, advocacy groups, faith groups and others have been finding them temporary lodging and flying them to their destinations around the country. A few have made their way to Southern California.

The next step for these families is to check in with immigration officials and appear before an immigration judge. Many of these parents are Central Americans seeking asylum. As the Trump administration moves to cut down on both legal and illegal immigration, it recently raised the bar for asylum seekers who are fleeing "private violence" like gang or domestic violence, requiring them to prove that their government would not or could not help them.

The government's viewpoint is that just because a country can't police certain crimes is not a justification for the U.S. to grant asylum to victims. So winning asylum could be challenging for many of these families.

Other children and their parents have been placed in family detention. According to the immigrants' legal advocates during a Tuesday press call organized by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, some reunited families have been taken to family detention centers, two which are in Texas.

There is a longstanding rule, known as the Flores Agreement, that prevents keeping children long term in immigrant detention facilities. Typically, they can be kept for no more than 20 days. The Trump administration has tried to modify this rule so that families can be detained longer while their cases play out in immigration court. But a federal judge in Los Angeles recently denied that request.

WILL SOME OF THESE FAMILIES BE DEPORTED?

That is what the administration is seeking. According to the government, about 900 of the parents who are getting their kids back have final orders of removal from the country.

In mid-July, Judge Sabraw issued a temporary halt to the deportations of families after they are reunified. This came after some reunited families were deported very quickly; the government recently told the court that about 20 families may have been deported.

The ACLU is pushing for a seven-day delay before reunited families can be deported so they have time to get legal advice and make informed decisions. Now that these reunions are happening quickly, immigration advocates say things are chaotic on the ground. The ACLU filed documents Wednesday that included affidavits from lawyers who interviewed detained parents, alleging that parents who waived their right to be reunified with their kids were forced to make hasty decisions, and that some signed forms they did not understand.

The government has objected to any delays in the deportations, saying the extra time is not necessary. The government is arguing that parents already have 48 hours before they are deported to decide if they want to be sent back, with or without their kids.

The judge did not rule on this issue Tuesday. Another hearing is set for Friday.

WHY FAMILIES WERE SEPARATED AT THE BORDER

In April, the Trump administration announced a "zero tolerance" policy for people crossing into the U.S. illegally. This included asylum seekers who did not present themselves at official ports of entry. Migrants arrested between ports of entry would be referred for prosecution for illegal entry, which is a misdemeanor. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that "if you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you, as required by law."

This resulted in separated families, as parents with children were referred for prosecution and detained. Minor children were taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a network of children's shelters around the country. Typically, children who enter these shelters are held until they can be placed with an adult sponsor in the U.S., often a relative.

Many of these children have been gradually released to sponsors. But earlier this month, HHS said there were still 2,551 children ages 5 to 17 held in federal shelters. This is the group that was supposed to be reunited with their parents by the Thursday deadline.

A group of about 103 children under age 5 was also identified by HHS. The federal government was able to reunite just over half of those with their parents by the court-imposed deadline of July 10.

FAMILIES SETTLING IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

At one point, there were over 100 children held in federal shelters in the greater Los Angeles area. That number has since decreased, according to L.A. county officials. Some parents have also been held in local facilities, although the bulk are in states like Texas and Arizona.

But some families have been reunited locally already. And others detained elsewhere who have family in the area — or whose children have been released to relatives here — have been coming to Southern California.

Legal service nonprofits and public agencies have been taking steps to prepare for the expected demand. For example, legal nonprofits that obtain grant money from the public-private L.A. Justice Fund used for immigrants' deportation defense may now use these funds to represent reunited families who settle locally while their asylum cases proceed in court.

And local public agencies have been sorting out how they will provide services to these families, including mental health services to address separation trauma for the children.

This story has been updated.


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