A father wears an ankle bracelet as he is cared for in an Annunciation House facility after being reunited with his son on July 25, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. He was reunited with his son at an I.C.E processing center after being separated when they tried to cross into the United States
Image: Getty

After losing track of potentially thousands of children it forcibly separated from their parents, the Trump administration is arguing that it might be too time-consuming, and too emotionally taxing on the children, to reunite them with their families.

The Trump administration has not disputed a recent report by the Office of Inspector General that found—in addition to the 2,737 children the Department of Health and Human Services previously reported as separated from their parents—there may be potentially thousands more children unaccounted for.

And last week, the administration argued that reuniting these children will take too much effort, and “would present grave child welfare concerns.” Jonathan White, who manages the Department of Health and Human Services’ Unaccompanied Alien Children program and claims a background in social work, wrote in a court filing that reuniting children currently placed with adult guardians with their families would endanger the welfare of the children. “It would destabilize the permanency of their existing home environment, and could be traumatic to the children,” he wrote.

“The administration is acting as if these are children who are adopted, whose parents gave them up for adoption decades ago and now all of a sudden bringing a parent into their life would destabilize their life,” Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Project and its lead attorney on the case, told Jezebel. “We’re talking about children who were forcibly taken from their parents in the last year and the administration is trying to claim that it’s for the child’s own good not to reunite with their parents. That makes no sense and can’t be justified from a child welfare standpoint.” 

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Documents in the court filing also argued that reviewing each of the 47,083 cases between July 1, 2017 and June 26, 2018 (the day that a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to begin reuniting families) would take 100 employees 471 days to complete. Such a review would “substantially imperil” the department without a “rapid, dramatic expansion” in staffing.

When contacted by Jezebel for an interview request, White directed our request to the office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, which did not immediately respond to our request for comment. But Health and Human Services spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer told the AP that the department does not comment on ongoing litigation.

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The court filing is part of the Trump administration’s latest attempt to absolve itself of responsibility over reuniting the thousands of families forcibly separated under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero-tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute asylum-seekers and people crossing the border without documentation. In June of 2018, a federal district judge issued an injunction against the policy, ordering the administration to identify those it separated and begin the process of reunification. The administration failed to meet several deadlines imposed by the court, and then outsourced part of the reunification efforts to organizations outside the government, including the ACLU—the organization that sued the administration over the policy.

The ACLU plans to challenge the government’s claim, and will ask the judge to include the children under the current reunification order.

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It’s unclear what a second reunification effort may look like, however, because the administration does not appear to know how many children are separated, or how to track them and their parents. According to the OIG report, HHS doesn’t have “an existing, integrated data system to track separated families across HHS and DHS” and there’s no assurance that their data about separated children is “consistent and accurate.”

“One of the things, going forward, that the judge has asked us and the government to come up with is a central database so this tracking problem never happens again,” Gelernt said. “I think this is likely to reinforce in the judge’s mind the need for a tracking system.”

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“The real problem now is that we don’t even know how many families need to be reunited,” Gelernt said. “The individuals we know about, we were making progress but it was far too slow. But now it looks like we may be starting on a whole new stage of reunifications. Many of these thousands of families, the parents may have already been deported.”

“Whether or not the court makes these families part of the case, we would hope that the United States government would want to do everything that they can to reunite these families,” Gelernt said. “We don’t believe it’s beyond their capacity. We believe they’re just not prioritizing it and just don’t want to put the resources in. We certainly don’t believe that there’s a basis in child welfare law or practice to not reunify families who were forcibly separated in the last year.”

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Update 2/4/2019, 5:10 p.m.: Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer responded to Jezebel’s questions with the following statement: “As a matter of policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) does not comment on matters related to ongoing litigation.”