President Donald Trump's administration has six months to identify and reunite potentially thousands of migrant children it separated from their families in the months before the administration's official "zero tolerance" policy, a federal judge ruled Thursday. The White House had previously said the process could take up to two years.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in California ruled in March that the Trump administration was responsible for all the children the government separated from their parents in the months before it announced its policy of separating families — and not just the 2,700-plus children who remained in federal custody in June 2018, when he ordered officials to reunite the separated families.
The Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border separated scores of families in an attempt to deter migrant families from trying to enter the United States through the nation's southern border with Mexico.Under the policy, officials prosecuted nearly all adults entering the country illegally and any children accompanying them were put in federal shelters across the country — a move that sparked international outcry.
But the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General, a government watchdog, estimated in a January report that "thousands" more children may have been separated from their families than previously reported.
The HHS inspector general's report found a surge in immigrant family separations beginning in the summer of 2017, months before the administration's zero tolerance policy was announced in what is believed to be a trial run for the measure. It also said some family separations continued, even after Trump ended the policy in June 2018 amid widespread uproar and Sabraw ordered his administration to reunite eligible families.
The federal audit said it remains unknown how many migrant children have been released to family or non-relative guardians because of failures to track the separated families.
Lawyers representing the Trump administration have stated that most of the children who had been separated have already been released to a parent or guardian, and said it could federal officials up to two years to find them all.
But Sabraw on Thursday ordered the administration to have its plan completed by Oct. 25, although he indicated the timeline may be modified for a "showing of good cause."
Sabraw's ruling came after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit last year on behalf of the migrant parents who were separated from their children, so they can contact the families and ensure separated families reunite.
"This order shows the court continues to recognize the gravity of this situation," ACLU lawyer Lee Grant said in a statement Thursday after the hearing.
A status conference was scheduled for May 17.