Lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates called for a mass mobilization on Thursday as the Trump administration reached its court-ordered deadline for reuniting all of the families it has forcibly separated since implementing its deeply unpopular "zero tolerance" immigration policy in May—with no sign that it would reunify as many as 914 parents with their children by the end of the day.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) accused the administration of extreme negligence in how it carried out the "horrific, dark act of injuring children in order to take a political position."
"The administration was incompetent on top of it, or callous, and did not track the connection between the parents and the children, and so it's having an enormously difficult time reuniting the families," Merkley said on CNN's "New Day."
Democratic @SenJeffMerkley calls family separation a "horrific, dark act of injuring children in order to take a political position": "The administration was incompetent on top of it, or callous, and didn't track the connection between the parents and the children" pic.twitter.com/wMYWJIyeII
— New Day (@NewDay) July 26, 2018
Paying homage to the historic "I am a Man" demonstration organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, dozens of children led a protest on Capitol Hill to express outrage over the White House's failure to return all 2,551 children—ranging in age from five to 17—whom immigration officials took from their parents.
The children have been sent to facilities around the country while their parents have been incarcerated for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally—a misdemeanor for a first offense.
Children led a sit in at Capitol Hill to protest family separation at the border.
Today is the deadline to reunite 2,551 children who were taken from their families, but the Trump administration says only about 1,600 are "eligible" for reunification. pic.twitter.com/P9FU444b9X
— AJ+ (@ajplus) July 26, 2018
Today is the deadline for the Trump Admin to reunite all families separated at the border.
— Families Belong Together (@WomenBelong) July 26, 2018
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In June, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose agency is tasked with overseeing the care of minors who cross U.S. borders without parents or guardians—and now, minors who have been taken from their families by the administration after arriving in the U.S.—to reunite the families, calling the family separation practice "startling" and "chaotic."
Lawyers for the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a court filing this week that 463 parents will likely not be reunited with their children because they have been deported, many after signing so-called "voluntary departure orders." Rights groups say many of these parents were not made aware of their rights before signing the orders and were led to believe that doing so would allow them to see their children again.
Two-hundred-sixty other parents will not be reunited with their children because immigration officials are still assessing their cases or attempting to locate them.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) has railed against the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for months, sharing a story on social media about the effects of forced separation on families even after they're reunified.
A mom told us her relationship with her 8yo daughter would never be the same. Officials lied to the daughter, saying her mom abandoned her. They said she'd live in a shelter until she was 18. When they reunited, the daughter believed that and wanted nothing to do with her mom.
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) July 26, 2018
Some have called for Azar to be held in contempt of court for failing to abide by Sabraw's orders—which legal experts have said is possible.
"It is within [the court's] right to fine or imprison government officials who do not comply with the order," Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst and immigration lawyer at Migration Policy Institute, told Newsweek.
"The administration really created this crisis on their own accord by separating thousands of parents from their children and inflicting incredible trauma," Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, added. "As this crisis has unfolded it has become increasingly clear that there was never a plan to reunify the families at the time they separated them."
On Twitter, Merkley urged Americans to continue to fight the Trump administration's assault on immigrant families.
There are many issues that demand our attention. But still –all these weeks later– even just the thought of children being snatched away from their parents at the border is at the front of my mind. We cannot turn away. We must keep fighting. History will remember.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 26, 2018