zero tolerance
February 22, 2019

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw told the Justice Department that he may expand his order from last July that the Trump administration reunite most families separated under President Trump's "zero tolerance" border policy in the light of new evidence that the policy started earlier than originally acknowledged.

"No one but a few in the government knew that these separations had been going on nine or 10 months before, and that hundreds if not thousands of children were" being separated, Sabraw told Justice Department lawyer Scott Stewart. "The court didn't know that and plaintiffs didn't know that, and I don't think government counsel knew that." Stewart pushed back, saying accounting for and reuniting more than the roughly 2,800 families included under Sabraw's original order would "blow the case into some other galaxy" and suggested such an decision may push the Justice Department to fight Sabraw "tooth and nail."

The ACLU, the plaintiff in the case, wants Sabraw to extend his order to all families separated under Trump since July 2017, and ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said his organization is "prepared, no matter how big the burden is," to continue helping track down separated parents and children, with information provided by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services. The first step is identifying which parents and children have been separated. "It's important to recognize that we're talking about human beings," Sabraw reminded Stewart. "Every person needs to be accounted for."

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued separating hundreds of children from their families under a system where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents untrained in child welfare decide if a parent poses a "danger" to the child, USA Today details. "Family separations are still very much happening in the southern border," Efrén Olivares at the Texas Civil Rights Project tells NBC News. The organization has discovered at least a few wrongly separated families, he added. Peter Weber

December 19, 2018

The Trump administration is still holding more than 14,600 migrant children at 137 government-funded shelters around the U.S., but that number could soon drop by hundreds of detainees under a policy shift at the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement is in charge of sheltering minors traveling by themselves or, especially under President Trump's officially defunct family separation policy, removed from their parents at the border. Going forward, that office will no longer fingerprint and run full background checks on all adults in a household that wants to sponsor a separated minor, only the sponsors themselves and any other adult who is flagged in a public-records check.

Most sponsors are a parent or relative of the detained child. "The children should be home with their parents," Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS's Administration for Children and Families, told NPR on Tuesday. "The government makes lousy parents." The extra screening "is not adding anything to the protection or the safety of the children," she added. "I don't want to cause any additional harm by keeping kids in care any longer than they need to when they have a thoroughly vetted parent waiting for them." Johnson said about 2,000 children are ready to be released to vetted parents before Christmas.

The policy shift was driven in part by pragmatic concerns: The ACLU and other groups sued HHS last month over the extra background checks, and the 137 federal facilities are 91 percent full, most notoriously the massive Tornillo tent city in West Texas. Migrant advocates cheered the change — with caveats. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested 170 immigrants who applied to sponsor a migrant child, and HHS isn't ending its information-sharing agreement with ICE. "Rather than prioritizing the well-being and safety of children, the Trump administration continues to use them as bait to round up and deport their family members," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a statement. Peter Weber

October 9, 2018

Even before the Trump administration briefly made family separation official policy, migrant children were sometimes split from their parents at the U.S. border, and when those children are placed in foster care, things can get complicated quickly. The separated children are under custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, but states "typically run child-welfare system," The Associated Press reports, and the end result can be deported parents deprived of parental rights, their children adopted by American families.

After an extensive investigation, AP "identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents." "When state courts gain control of a child being detained by the federal government, that child can become invisible in the system."

AP focused on the story of Salvadoran national Araceli Ramos Bonilla and her daughter Alexa, separated from her mother at age 2 when they crossed into Texas and eventually placed into a foster home in Michigan while her mother was deported. The Michigan family convinced a rural state judge to grant them full custody of Alexa without Ramos' knowledge, and if federal prosecutors hadn't stepped in after Ramos waged a social media campaign, the family may well have adopted Alexa.

Alexa was finally returned to Ramos after 15 months, and it took several more months for Alexa to bond with her mother again and relearn Spanish. Some parents haven't been so lucky. And with hundreds of children still in detention or foster care from President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, hundreds of separated parents deported, and more than 200 children deemed ineligible for reunification or release, "it's just a recipe for disaster," says former ICE director John Sandweg.

It's unjust to "give our children up for adoption without our permission," Ramos told AP. "They are our children, not theirs." You can read more about the Ramos case and flaws in the system at The Associated Press. Peter Weber

October 3, 2018

In May, a team from the Department of Homeland Security's office of inspector general made a surprise visit to a private, for-profit immigration jail in California that holds about 2,000 immigrants under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What they found, outlined in a report released Tuesday, included "nooses" dangling from air vents in 15 of the 20 cells they visited, one detainee left in his wheelchair for nine days straight, and immigrants who had teeth fall out while they waited years for fillings, among other major violations of federal detention standards.

The jail, in Adelanto — in the high desert 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles — is one of 71 federal prisons and detention centers run and owned by GEO Group. One 32-year-old detainee hanged himself with a bedsheet in March 2017, and at least seven other detainees attempted suicide between December 2016 and October 2017, the DHS inspectors wrote. "One detainee told us, 'I've seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them "suicide failures" once they are back from medical.'"

The conditions, including summary isolation, pose "a significant threat" to the rights of detainees and their mental and physical health, the report found. ICE said it takes the report's findings "seriously" and has "agreed to conduct a full and immediate review of the center." ICE has increasingly relied on private contract facilities amid a surge of detentions due to President Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

"Adelanto holds adult women and men in immigration custody, including those who are applying for asylum" and were "separated from their children at the border," The New York Times notes. "Unlike prisoners in the penal system, most immigrants at the facility have committed no crimes other than illegally crossing the border," a civil misdemeanor. A separate DHS inspector general report found that Trump's botched family-separation policy resulted in children held in chain-link cells for up to 25 days. Peter Weber

August 31, 2018

Three minors separated from their parents under President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy were sexually abused by employees at unidentified U.S. detention centers in Arizona, El Salvador's deputy foreign relations minister Liduvina Magarin told reporters Thursday. The children, age 12 to 17, are among the 191 Salvadoran minors separated from their parents, 18 of whom are still in U.S. shelters. "They are sexual violations, sexual abuses, that is what this is about," Magarin said. The three children are in good health, she added, but "the psychological and emotional impact is forever, and we are attending to that situation."

Magarin said her government is urging the U.S. to reunify the separated families because the children "are the most vulnerable" in the shelters. Police have received at least 125 reports of sex offenses at shelters mostly holding migrant children, ProPublica reported in July, and one Phoenix shelter worker was arrested last month for molesting a 14-year-old migrant girl. As of Aug. 20, 528 children in U.S. custody remained separated from their parents, including 23 children under age 5 and 343 whose parents are no longer in America. District Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the Trump administration to reunite all 2,654 separated minors by July 26. Peter Weber

August 3, 2018

In a conference call on Friday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw will consider competing plans for reuniting about 431 migrant children with parents the Trump administration deported after separating the families under its "zero tolerance" border policy. The ACLU, which successfully sued the administration to reunite the families it separated, wants the federal government to take "significant and prompt steps" to locate the deported parents and offer to fly them to the U.S. to meet with lawyers and pick up their children — or if the parents choose, fly the children to them within a week. The Justice Department has a different strategy.

The ACLU "should use their considerable resources and their network of law firms, (non-governmental organizations), volunteers, and others" to find and contact the deported parents, most of them back in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Justice Department lawyers proposed in court documents Thursday. Once the parents are found, the ACLU would ask if they wanted to waive the right to be reunited with their children or get their kids back, in which case the U.S. would work with the relevant country "to determine how best to complete reunifications."

The ACLU was not impressed. "Not only was it the government's unconstitutional separation practice that led to this crisis, but the United States Government has far more resources than any group of NGOs," ACLU lawyers wrote. "Plaintiffs have made clear that they will do whatever they can to help locate the deported parents, but emphasize that the government must bear the ultimate burden of finding the parents."

Judge Sabraw gave the Trump administration until last week to reunite the 2,500 separated children with their parents; as of Wednesday, the administration said, about 1,900 children have been turned over to parents or "eligible" sponsors. He has ordered the government to provide written updates on the reunification process every Thursday, with a follow-up call on Friday. Peter Weber

July 11, 2018

President Trump, judging by his words and actions, hates illegal immigration and any policy put in place by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. But like Obama, he is finding his immigration policy constrained by a 1997 consent decree, court rulings, and public opinion. So for now, The New York Times says, the Trump administration is "effectively returning to the 'catch and release' policy that President Trump promised to eliminate." Federal officials say border agents have stopped referring migrant parents with children for prosecution, and migrant parents with kids under 5 are being fitted with ankle bracelets and released into the community.

"Catch and release is a term with no legal definition and has been used as a pejorative alternative to jailing illegal immigrants," and ending the policy has been a top priority for Trump and the border agent union that endorsed him, the Times notes. "The use of ankle bands for migrant families may be short-lived," however.

In court on Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw that the Trump administration believes it can force migrant parents to choose between waiving their right to keep custody of their children while they await legal proceedings or agreeing to be detained as a family for more than the 20 days typically allowed under the Flores agreement consent decree. Sabraw said he would consider allowing that choice and asked the government lawyers and ACLU attorney representing the migrants what would happen if the parents declined to waive either right. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said the parents would have to sue the government, but "we are hopeful the government will do the right thing."

In any case, the Health and Human Service Department, which houses the forcibly separated migrant kids, is preparing for a huge surge in child separations, diverting funding from other HHS programs, Slate reports, citing internal HHS documents. Peter Weber

July 11, 2018

There were tears of joy and tears of anguish as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reunited 34 of the 102 children under 5 it had been ordered to return to their parents by Tuesday. (Four other kids had been returned to their parents before Tuesday.) And the federal judge who set the deadline, Dana Sabraw, was not amused. "These are firm deadlines, they're not aspirational goals," he told government lawyers. He asked an ACLU lawyer to propose punishments if the government missed the Tuesday deadline for at least 63 children and the July 26 deadline to reunite parents with the roughly 3,000 older children U.S. border agents forcibly separated under President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which provided the 34-returned-children number, blamed safety concerns for the delay, saying it found parents with criminal backgrounds and five adults who DNA tests showed were not the child's parent. In a court filing Tuesday, the Justice Department gave other extenuating circumstances, including one young child who can't be returned because the whereabouts of his parents are unknown and "records show the parent and child might be U.S. citizens." Judge Sabraw wasn't swayed, conceding only that it would take more time to reunite the 20 children whose parents had already been deported.

Tuesday's secretive reunification effort was full of the "chaos, confusion, and legal wrangling" that has accompanied Trump's zero tolerance policy, the Los Angeles Times notes. Some reunions were happy, like a handful of Central American fathers reunited with their young kids in Texas and Michigan; they were "just holding them and hugging them and telling them that everything was fine and that they were never going to be separated again," immigration lawyer Abril Valdes said of three dads in Michigan. In Arizona, on the other hand, a few mothers were met with rejection from toddlers who appeared not to recognize them after months of separation, The New York Times reports. Peter Weber

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