NBC News reports that late Friday evening, the Office of Refugees and Resettlement told the court that reuniting children separated from parents at the border may not be “within the realm of the possible.”
The filing was a response ordered by US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in the ACLU lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s separation of thousands of children from their migrant parents. A hearing is scheduled for February 21 to determine if the judge’s order will apply to children released to sponsors prior to his June 26, 2018 ruling that the government must reunite children it its custody with their parents.
At least 2,737 children have been separated from their parents since the implementation of the administration’s zero tolerance policy last spring.
The majority of children the ACLU are asking the court to address in its ruling were released to relatives who agreed to sponsor them. According to the AP, in the 2017 fiscal year, 49% were released to parents, 41% to close relatives (adult siblings, grandparents, aunts or uncles), while 10% went to distant relatives, friends of their family or others.
Per the Associated Press, Ann Maxwell, Health and Human Services’ assistant inspector general for evaluations, says her office does not have a precise count, but the number of children separated from their families is larger than the number the government provided to the court. Her staff estimates that number to be in the thousands.
According to NBC, Jallyn Sualog, deputy director of the ORR, an office within the Department of Health and Human services, says that the ORR doesn’t have the resources to track down the thousands of children in their care. She told the court, “Even if performing the analysis Plaintiffs seek were within the realm of the possible, it would substantially imperil ORR’s ability to perform its core functions without significant increases in appropriations from Congress, and a rapid, dramatic expansion of the ORR data team.”
Sualog says in the filing that each of the 47,083 cases opened between July 1, 2017 and the court order in June 2018 would take up to eight hours to review. That would entail 100 employees working up to 471 days.
Jonathon White, head of HHS’ operation to reunite separated families, told the court that the government should be focusing on children who are currently in the government’s custody, instead of children who have been released to sponsors. He cited “grave welfare concerns” in removing children from “sponsor” homes in order to reunite them with their parents.
In the filing, Jallyn Sualog said the government lacks legal authority to take children from the sponsors who agree to take them. She continued, “Doing so would be disruptive and harmful to the child. Disrupting the family relationship is not a recommended child welfare practice.”
The ACLU’s attorney Lee Gelernt called the government’s response “shocking”.
In a statement, he said, “The Trump administration’s response is a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents, and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them. The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers.”