A report filed by an internal watchdog released last month claims that thousands more children have been separated from their families at the United States-Mexico border than the 2,737 listed by the government. The Trump administration responded to the court filing by claiming that reuniting the children may not be “within the realm of the possible.”
The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) believe that removing children from “sponsor” homes, which are largely close relatives or family friends, would be disruptive to the children. According to the Associated Press, the majority of displaced children were released to relatives. In 2017, 49% were released to parents while 41% were released to close relatives such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. The remaining 10% were placed with distant relatives, family friends, and others.
The suit, which is being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, does not list an exact number due to inadequate record keeping, but estimates that thousands more children and parents have been separated since the summer of 2017. Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities in New York, told Reuters that there seems to be no standard of information sharing between agencies even after the court ordered the government to reunite separated families.
Widespread family separation occurred in June 2018 after the then attorney general, Jeff Sessions, declared a “zero tolerance policy” demanding that all people crossing the border illegally be criminally prosecuted. Now, deputy director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, Jallyn Sualog claims that there would need to be a “rapid dramatic expansion” of staffing in order to review all 47,083 cases opened between July 2017 and June 2018 when a San Diego judge ruled that children in its custody should be reunited with their parents. Sualog estimates that it would take a team of 100 people over a year to get through all the cases.
“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 ACLU’s lead attorney, Lee Gelernt, said in a statement. "The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers."
A hearing is scheduled for February 21 in an attempt to get children released to sponsors before the June 2018 ruling included in this motion to reunite them with their parents.