According to a declaration filed on Friday as part of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officials from the Trump administration on Friday complained it would require too much effort to reunite the thousands of families it separated before implementing its “zero-tolerance” policy in April.
In the declaration, Health and Human Services (HHS) officials did not refute a report issued by the HHS inspector general last month which found that “thousands” more immigrant families had been separated than the government had previously disclosed. HHS said they have no idea what the exact number of children who were taken from their parents before “zero tolerance” and claimed that locating them would be too much of a “burden” since there was no formal tracking system in place.
Jallyn Sualog, the deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said that, “In my judgment, ORR does not have the requisite staff for such a project,” indicating that it would take 100 analysis from the ORR without full eight-hour days somewhere between 7-15 months to “even begin reconciling” the requisite data.
“The Trump administration’s response is a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU’s ongoing lawsuit against ICE, in a statement. “The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers.”
Immigration advocates are dismayed by the fact that the government did not bother to properly track separated families when they instituded the “zero tolerance” policy.
“They are saying they just don’t care,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s shocking from a human rights perspective for a government to behave this way.”
“I think the policy of taking the children away in the first place was cruel,” said Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer, “but to not even have a system to return the parents to the children just increases the magnitude of the cruelty.”
The government also failed to properly track the roughly 2,800 children that it separated from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” policy between April and June. The administration was required to reunite families as part of an ACLU lawsuit, an ongoing process that has at times required immigration advocates to search for deported parents on foot in remote, crime-ridden areas of Central America.
According to the inspector general’s report, 159 children who were separated under “zero tolerance” are still in ORR care, most of whose parents were deported and decided to keep their kids in the U.S. due to dangerous situations back home. If the government doesn’t allow those parents to re-apply for asylum in the U.S., families may remain permanently separated. Gelernt worries that before “zero tolerance” the government could have deported hundreds more parents who might not have had a say in their children’s futures.