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Protesters walked though the streets of El Paso, Texas on June 21, 2018 to protest against the Trump administration's immigration policies. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ripping Into Trump for Treating Children Worse Than Seized Property, Judge Orders Reunification of Separated Families

"This ruling is an enormous victory for parents and children who thought they may never see each other again."

Jessica Corbett

A federal judge in San Diego, California ruled late Tuesday that the more than 2,000 migrant children separated from their parents under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy must be reunited with their families within 30 days—and children under age 5 must be returned to parents within two weeks.

"This ruling is an enormous victory for parents and children who thought they may never see each other again," declared Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, which fought for the families in court. "Tears will be flowing in detention centers across the country when the families learn they will be reunited."

"The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance—responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government's own making. They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our constitution," wrote (pdf) U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw. "This is particularly so in the treatment of migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers and small children."

The Trump administration's family separation policy was implemented without any standards for adequately tracking detained children taken from their parents, so as Sabraw noted, the "startling" and "unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property."

Karen Tumlin, director of legal strategy for the National Immigration Law Center, drew attention to the court's pointed criticism of federal officials treating children with less care than a detainee's personal effects:

In addition to setting deadlines for reunification, Sabraw also issued a nationwide injunction to block officials from separating any more families—unless a parent "affirmatively, knowingly, and voluntarily declines to be reunited with the child...or there is a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child"—and mandated that the government establish phone contact between separated children and their parents within 10 days.

While the ruling, which allows the case to proceed as a class action suit, was welcomed by the immigrant rights community, it is still unclear how officials will actually go about reuniting families, particularly if a parent already has been deported and their child remains in government custody.

Prior to Tuesday night's ruling, 17 states and the District of Columbia—all led by Democratic attorneys general—filed suit (pdf) with the U.S. District Court in Seattle over President Donald Trump's recent executive order that called for an end to the policy but which critics say trades "one form of child abuse for another."

"The new federal executive order does not bring back together the thousands of families that were torn apart by the Trump administration's policy, and it does not prevent families from being separated in the future," explained Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The attorneys general have not yet updated or withdrawn their case following the ruling in California.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that 2,047 children remain in government custody and claimed they could not be reunited with their parents because of the 1997 Flores agreement, which puts a 20-day limit on detaining families.


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