Administration defends efforts to identify, reunify separated children

Deported parents return to find children
Evelio Contreras/CNN

The Trump administration defended its efforts to identify and reunify migrant children who had been separated from their undocumented parents along the US-Mexico border in a response to a court order filed Friday.

US District Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the administration to respond to a Health and Human Services Department inspector general report as part of an ongoing family separation lawsuit, Ms. L et al. vs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al, by Friday.

The government included two declarations from officials — Jallyn N. Sualog, the deputy director for Children’s Programs for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and Jonathan White, commander with the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. White is the HHS’ agency lead in the Unaccompanied Alien Children Reunification Coordination Group.

Sualog, who was involved in reunification efforts, and White detail what HHS did to identify children who had been separated and to reunify them, while facing challenges. White conceded, as the HHS inspector general report showed, that “the effort was challenging because the data that were available for use in identifying possible children of class members were kept by multiple government agencies in different systems.”

He adds, “Some of the data were aggregated. Some were not. Indeed, some of the most critical data were individualized.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is within HHS, is tasked with placing kids with sponsors in the United States. Oftentimes, these are children who arrived to the United States unaccompanied. It was not, therefore, prepared to receive children who had been separated.

“The ORR portal was not originally designed for aggregated tracking of separated children in ORR care,” White writes.

The HHS IG report revealed that “thousands” more children had been separated than previously acknowledged by the government. As a result, the plaintiffs in the case, which centers on a woman who was separated from her daughter, said the report cast doubt on the 2,737 figure released by the government following Sabraw’s order last year.

The response to the inspector general report filed Friday is only the first step. The government is also required to file a response regarding the scope of the case by Wednesday. The government said it will “more fully address” the issues raised by the plaintiffs on this date.

White notes in his declaration that HHS has revised its figures after finding new information.

“(The Incident Management Team) conducted a rigorous review to identify any and all indicators of potential separation for every child in ORR care as of June 26, 2018,” Sualog writes, adding that expanding the class definition would require an analysis of more than 45,000 unaccompanied minors in ORR care from June 2017 to July 2018.

The American Civil Liberties Union originally filed the case against the Trump administration last year on behalf of a Congolese woman, referred to as “Ms. L,” seeking asylum in the US who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter. The case was later expanded to become a class action lawsuit.

Sabraw issued a preliminary injunction last June blocking most family separations at the US-Mexico border and ordering that those already separated be reunited.