A U.S. federal court judge has warned President Donald Trump to reunite the families separated under his controversial 'zero-tolerance' immigration policy, or risk having to pay hefty fines.
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At a July 10 hearing, Judge Dana Sabraw – who two weeks ago gave the U.S. government until July 10 to reunite families, a deadline it failed to meet – said he would not grant an extension.
"These are firm deadlines; they are not aspirational goals. I would like the process to continue as expeditiously as it has been with paramount focus on the children's welfare."
Lawyers were promising that by July 10, 54 of the 101 youngsters would be reunited with their parents, but the government only managed to reunite 38, according to CNN.
The judge has now ruled that the government must rapidly reunite the remaining 63 or face fines.
The government still contends it needs more time to conduct DNA testing to confirm family relationships, perform background checks and find parents who were released.
"Our process may not be as fast as some would like, but there is no question that it is protecting children," said Chris Meekins, of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for taking care of the children in custody.
An anonymous administration official told the New York Times that the reunification process has been a "bureaucratic nightmare" involving several sprawling government departments and databases.
The children are being processed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, within the Department of Health and Human Services. Parents and adults, on the other hand, are under the jurisdiction of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Hundreds of records linking children to their parents were destroyed or have disappeared, two DHS officials told the New York Times.
The Department of Justice now says that, in at least 20 cases, "legitimate logistical impediments" are making family reunification "impossible." These impediments include 12 parents having been deported, as well as ongoing screening procedures for the remaining eight.
Between mid-May and late June, the Department of Justice implemented a 'zero-tolerance' policy at the U.S.-Mexico border as an attempt to deter Central American migrants, most of whom are asylum seekers.
After the international public outcry, Trump vowed to end the separations – a move he was doubly forced to comply with under Sabraw's ruling.
In the meantime, children under five have been forced to represent themselves in court as part of the administration's overall immigration policy.
At least 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since May, but Sabraw's order also calls for all other children to be reunited with their parents – around 3,000 in total – by July 26.
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), which brought the case, must suggest solutions if the government fails to reunite all the families by July 12.
"The court has a range of options ranging from significant fines to other types of aid," said lead ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. The lawyer expressed concern that the number of those under is five is accurate. Gelernt thinks the number is low.
Trump, meanwhile, says the solution for Central Americans fleeing extreme poverty and violence in their home countries is to "not illegally enter our country. That's the solution."
The Republican house has twice failed to pass two immigration bills in the past month.