(Reuters) – The U.S. government scrambled to meet a Thursday court-ordered deadline for reuniting hundreds of immigrant children and parents who had been separated at the border with Mexico, leaving many of those families now facing potentially life-changing decisions.
Lawyers and advocates working with parents and children complained of miscommunication and lack of coordination as the government shuttled children from around the country to detention centers in the U.S. Southwest, where many parents were held.
“We’re seeing some kids swept away in the middle of the night to be reunified,” said Anthony Enriquez of Catholic Charities of New York, which represents some of the affected children.
Government lawyers told a federal judge in San Diego earlier this week that 917 parents out of about 2,500 who were parted from their children may not be eligible for prompt reunification because they have already been deported, have waived reunification, have criminal backgrounds, or are otherwise deemed unfit.
It was unclear on Thursday how many immigrant families will remain separated.
Those who are reunited face consequential decisions. About 900 have received final orders of removal, and civil rights groups said they must decide if they want to return home as a family or leave their child in the United States to fight for asylum separately.
The U.S. government has said it separated around 2,500 children from their parents as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration.
President Donald Trump ordered that the separations be stopped in June, after a widespread outcry. U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego subsequently ordered the reunifications and set Thursday as the deadline.
As of Monday, officials said they had brought together 879 parents with their children and identified 1,634 parents possibly eligible for reunification.
Updated numbers have not been provided.
“We have many reasons to be proud,” said Scott Stewart, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, at Tuesday’s hearing in Sabraw’s San Diego courtroom.
But Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit that led to Sabraw’s order, told the judge at a hearing on Tuesday the process was “a mess,” something government lawyers disputed.
Around the United States, groups on Thursday protested the government’s immigration policy. About 100 people marched outside the federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas, near the border with Mexico, while in Washington, protesters included about 20 children with handmade banners.
The ACLU has asked Sabraw to stay the deportation of reunited families for seven days, saying attorneys need the time to ensure that parents understand their rights and have considered their options.
The ACLU on Wednesday filed declarations in court detailing the stories of parents allegedly pressured into waiving reunification or signing deportation papers they did not understand.
Sabraw has criticized some aspects of the reunification process, but in recent days, he has praised government efforts to meet the deadline.
Additional reporting by Loren Ellliott; Editing by Sue Horton, Noeleen Walder and Bernadette Baum