The federal judge overseeing the reunification of more than 2,500 migrant families separated from their children praised the Trump administration on Friday for its work tracking down parents who had been deported.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw has at times lashed out at government attorneys when he felt they were moving too slowly to complete the reunifications he ordered on June 26. But with most reunifications now completed and both sides focusing on the 386 parents who were deported, Sabraw sounded thrilled.
"Both sides ... are really working collaboratively, which is absolutely essential," Sabraw said in his San Diego courtroom.
That's a big change from a week ago, when Justice lawyers argued that the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, should be responsible for tracking down hundreds of parents deported to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Sabraw shot down that proposal, saying the government was "100 percent" responsible for finding the parents. He ordered the Trump administration to develop a comprehensive plan to do so.
On Thursday, the government submitted a six-page plan that designated administrators at the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services responsible for overseeing efforts to find the deported parents. The plan outlines methods each department would use, and a system to coordinate with the government of each country to help locate the parents.
That process led to the government establishing contact with all but 26 of the 386 parents who had been deported. Sabraw repeatedly lauded the government for its progress.
"That would indicate to me that the government has put in an enormous amount of work in the last seven days," Sabraw said. "Keep up the good work."
Department of Justice attorney Scott Stewart said the remaining 26 parents could be more difficult to track down, but assured the judge that the government would keep trying.
"We continue and will continue those efforts in formulating, and now carrying out, the plan that we proposed," Stewart said.
Under an order from Sabraw, the ACLU also set up a committee of private law firms and non-governmental organizations that will follow up with each deported parent to make sure they understand their legal options. The collective will also help track down the remaining parents.
Friday's hearing marked the latest step following the decision by President Donald Trump to implement a "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents.
The policy required that most people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally be charged with a criminal violation and sent to immigration detention centers or federal prisons to await deportation hearings. That prompted the government to keep them apart from their children, because a federal law and the 1997 Flores Settlement limit the detention of children to no more than 20 days.
Trump's policy was widely condemned, including by members of his own family, and the president signed an executive order June 20 ending the practice. A week later, Sabraw ruled that the practice may have violated the due process rights of the families and ordered the administration to reunite them within 30 days.
As of this week, the government has reunited 1,569 children with their parents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. Another 423 children were released from government custody because their parents agreed to place them with a sponsor living in the U.S., or because they turned 18.
Both sides are now focused on the 386 parents who were deported. The ACLU contends that parents should be allowed to return to the United States to make their case for asylum. The Justice Department has not agreed to that, saying parents will be given a choice: have their child sent to them in their home country, or waive their right to reunification to allow the child to fight for asylum in the United States.