LOS ANGELES — The Trump administration on Friday asked a federal judge for more time to reunite migrant families separated by authorities at the southwest border, highlighting the challenge of confirming familial relationships between parents and children who now may be thousands of miles apart.
Parents of 19 of the 101 detained children who are under the age of 5 have been deported, a lawyer for the Justice Department reported Friday, though the government has said it was taking precautions not to deport parents whose children are still in custody.
In the case of 19 others, the parents have been released and their whereabouts are unknown, government lawyers said.
Judge Dana M. Sabraw of Federal District Court in San Diego had set a deadline of Tuesday for reuniting the youngest children with their parents, and in a conference Friday, the judge did not issue a blanket extension. Instead, he gave the government until Saturday evening to come up with a list naming all 101 of the youngest children, along with an explanation of why it would be impossible to promptly restore them to a parent.
Only after the government provided such a list, Judge Sabraw said, “can we have an intelligent conversation Monday morning about which child can be reunited by July 10, which will not — and then the court can determine whether it makes sense to relax the deadline. But I need more information.”
The Trump administration has been scrambling to streamline the process of reuniting migrant children and their families, as the human toll of Mr. Trump’s immigration policy becomes apparent and the political pressure grows to quickly address it. But administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity portrayed the operation as a bureaucratic nightmare involving different computer systems, databases and filing systems, and staffs that have been at odds with one another about how to proceed and what information to share with the public.
One administration official involved in the effort said on Friday that the process of reuniting migrant children with their parents had been sped up considerably with the use of DNA screening instead of consular records. This had shortened the period for confirmations to a few days from a couple of weeks.
But the process has been complicated because the judge’s ruling applied not only to children taken from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” border policy, but those separated for other reasons, several officials said.
In a motion filed late Thursday, the Justice Department said it had devoted “immense” resources to reunifying parents and children since June 26, when the judge imposed deadlines on the government for returning children to their families.
During the conference on Friday afternoon, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit challenging the separation of families, said the process was proceeding more slowly than necessary because the government is insisting on using the same vetting procedures that it uses for so-called unaccompanied minors — children, typically adolescents, who enter the United States alone and are released to an adult who claims to be a parent. In those cases, protections are needed to make sure children are not handed over to adults seeking to exploit them.
But such exhaustive protections, including home visits and the fingerprinting of every member of a household where a child will be residing, are slowing down reunifications, said the lawyer, Lee Gelernt.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Gelernt said. “You have taken the child from the parent.”
Last week, Judge Sabraw gave the government until July 10 to reunite children younger than 5 with a parent. He set July 26 as the deadline for older children.
The Trump administration began separating families who crossed the border illegally in the spring as part of its stepped-up enforcement measures along the border. Last month, the president issued an executive order halting the practice after it drew outrage from elected officials from both sides of the aisle as well as from the general public.
“There really has been a massive effort to get the resources in place and on the ground to make reunification happen,” Sarah B. Fabian, a government lawyer, said on Friday.
However, she added, “There are some groups for which the reunification process is more difficult.” In those cases, she said, more time would be necessary to link parent and child.
“The government does not wish to unnecessarily delay reunifications or burden class members,” the Justice Department said in its motion. “At the same time, however, the government has a strong interest in ensuring that any release of a child from government custody occurs in a manner that ensures the safety of that child.”
Mr. Gelernt, the A.C.L.U. lawyer, questioned the need for DNA testing and suggested that it should be used exclusively for the purpose of reunification and then should be expunged.
“DNA testing is intrusive and makes parents nervous,” he said. ”The government is saying DNA every single person. We would say that DNA is the last resort.”
Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday that nearly 3,000 children were in federal custody as a result of family separations intended to deter illegal immigration and that about 100 of them were under the age of 5. But records connecting children to their parents have in some cases disappeared, according to some of those working on the reunifications, leaving the authorities struggling to confirm connections between family members.
Mr. Azar said the logjam was due to previous policies and court decisions that prevent migrant families from being held in detention for extended periods.
“Any confusion is due to a broken immigration system and court orders,” Mr. Azar said. “It’s not here.”
Some parts of the federal judge’s ruling are already being complied with, the government said: Families are no longer being separated at the border, and arrangements have been made for children and parents to communicate with each other, a provision which the judge had specified was to be in place by Friday.
The government’s lawyer said that reunification was happening more rapidly when parents were still in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement rather than after they were released.
In its motion, the administration asked the judge to clarify whether the court’s order on reunifications applies to parents who have been deported. There are reports that some migrants agreed to be quickly deported, believing it would speed up the recovery of their children — only to board a plane and realize that their child would be left behind.
“ICE does not have the ability to go into those countries,” said Ms. Fabian of the immigration enforcement agency.
Other problems have occurred because parents and children are so widely separated. Many children were sent to facilities thousands of miles away from their parents, and some are too young or scared to provide accurate information about their parents or their journey.
The executive order that ended family separations did not lay out steps for reuniting families.
The ACLU had filed a lawsuit before the separation practice was officially in place and before the president’s executive order.
In his ruling on June 26, Judge Sabraw said that children can be separated at the border only if the adults with them present an immediate danger to them. He also said that adults cannot be deported from the United States without their children.
In his written opinion, the judge criticized the government, saying, “The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance — responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making.”
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