At court deadline, more than half of separated migrant families have been reunited

But hundreds of children are still in government custody without their parents.

As the court-ordered deadline passes for the government to reunite more than 2,000 families separated at the US-Mexico border, two things are clear: the majority of families have been reunited, but some remain separated.

We don’t know exactly how many families have been reunited — the federal government’s numbers aren’t quite precise enough for that. We don’t know what the fate of the families who have been reunited is — and how quickly parents will start getting deported after being reunited with their kids.

And we don’t know what the timeline is for reunifying the remaining families — the majority of them separated because the parents have already been deported — and how many (if any) are likely to remain permanently separated.

As the deadline passed Thursday night, the Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a joint status report in the federal court case being heard by Judge Dana Sabraw, who set July 26 as the deadline for the government to reunite all families with children ages 5-17.

Shortly thereafter, the departments responsible for separating and reuniting families — the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration enforcement, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which was entrusted with the care of children separated from their parents — spoke to the press about their progress.

Here’s what we know:

  • 1,442 children ages 5-17 have definitely been reunited with their parents. The government knows this for sure because it reunited them while in ICE custody. Hundreds of those families have subsequently been released; others are being detained together. As many as 900 parents may face deportation in the next few days, depending on how the next hearing in the lawsuit goes. Parents who’ve been ordered deported have the choice to take their children with them (and withdraw any case their children have to remain in the US), or leave their children here and be deported alone.
  • 711 children in that age group have not been reunited with their parents and are still in government custody. Seventy-nine of them have parents who were released into the US by ICE but are not “available” for reunification, presumably because the government hasn’t yet located them (bearing in mind that immigrants often have good reason not to return calls from ICE). Another 120 have parents who waived their rights to reunification — although up until the time they’re deported, parents theoretically have the right to change their minds. But the majority of children in this group — 431 or more — have parents who’ve already been deported. The government and the ACLU are still working out how those parents will be located, and what options they’ll be given for reunification.
  • 378 more children have been released from government custody — some are with their parents, but we don’t know how many. The Office of Refugee Resettlement released some children to parents who were out of ICE detention before the lawsuit’s reunification deadlines. But it also released some children to sponsors who were close relatives or family friends, in accordance with longstanding government policy. And some children turned 18 and were allowed to leave on their own. The government hasn’t said how many of the 378 children are in each subgroup, which makes it impossible to know exactly how many of the separated children are with their parents right now.

No matter how many of the 378 children in the last category are with their parents, it is clear that a majority of separated families involved in this case have been reunited by the deadline. (The 1,442 reunited children account for about 56 percent of the total for children 5-17; additionally, 57 of the 102 children under 5 separated from parents were reunited by an earlier deadline, and more have probably been reunited since then.)

But it’s also clear that many separated families have not been reunited. Even though the federal government claims that all families that were “eligible or available” for reunification under the court’s deadline have been reunited, that’s because of how they define “eligible” and “available.”

The biggest outstanding question on reunifications is what happens to the children whose parents have already left the US. On Thursday’s call, DHS said that there were 431 such children, and that their parents had all been deported rather than accepting “voluntary” departure.

The ACLU, however, claimed in the court filing Thursday that there could be as many as 500. This number appears to have been based on a spreadsheet the government gave the ACLU on Wednesday, which might be less up-to-date than the stats the government is working with.

The federal government insists that these parents were asked whether or not they wanted their children deported with them, and that all of them chose to have their children stay in the US to fight their own cases. But the ACLU believes that hundreds of them were never even given the choice.

On Thursday, the federal government wouldn’t say what its plans were for locating and reunifying deported parents, because it’s still negotiating with the ACLU — and Sabraw — about that. The issue is likely to come up at the next hearing in the case on Friday.

The more urgent question on Friday, though, will be what happens after reunification for the parents (as many as 900 of them) who had been issued final orders of deportation before getting reunited with their children. These parents have already been presented with the choice between taking their children with them, and being deported alone — though the ACLU is deeply concerned that not all of them have really understood the choice being placed before them.

The ACLU is asking for Sabraw to freeze deportations of parents for seven days so that parents can be given a better opportunity to decide their families’ fates after they’ve gotten a chance to see their children again. The government believes they shouldn’t need more than 48 hours. If Sabraw doesn’t intercede on the ACLU’s behalf, family reunification could be followed very swiftly by family deportations and family re-separations.