Do the feds have a plan to reunite migrant families? We’re about to find out

By Ross Ramsey

This is the week when we learn whether the federal government keeps track of migrant toddlers as well as major airlines track your luggage.

More than a week ago, a federal judge ordered immigration officials to reunite kids under the age of 5 with their parents by tomorrow. (The government, saying iit's unlikely it will be able to meet that deadline, asked for more time late last week, but hasn't received an answer; another hearing is scheduled for Monday morning.) They have another two weeks — until July 26 — to reunite the rest of the more than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents after their families illegally entered the United States.

“We will comply with the artificial deadlines created by the court — deadlines that were not informed by the process needed to vet parents, including confirming parentage as well as determining the suitability of placement with that parent,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “We will comply, even if those deadlines prevent us from conducting a standard or even a truncated vetting process.”

That makes one wonder if they were thinking about eventually bringing the families back together at the moment they split them. Airlines, most of the time, take your bags at one airport and hand them back at another. Restaurants manage to serve dinners to the tables that ordered them. The ride-share driver finds the corner where you’re waiting. The package on the porch has your name on it.

Getting a child back together with the adult from whom that child was taken shouldn’t be a chore. One hitch is that immigration officials aren’t convinced all of those parent-child relationships are legitimate ones — that they involve an actual family connection.

That’s clearly worthy of concern. But it’s a separate problem from the one at hand: Before they can decide which reunions are appropriate, they must first — at least on paper — reconnect the kids with the adults who were with them when they arrived in the U.S.

Splitting families turned out to be a huge moral and political mistake. Putting them back together ought to be as easy as getting school children into the right cars and buses at the end of classes every day.

Maybe it will be. Perhaps Azar and others are making this sound more complicated than it really is.

This week only involves about 100 children, according to the government’s head-counters. Those kids, ages 4 and under, are the least likely to be able to talk their way through the immigration machinery. Their numbers are small, but the complications are great.

And immigration and human services workers have got a task in front of them: Azar said they’re sorting through 11,800 case files, as many as a quarter of which — fewer than 3,000, he said — involve kids who were separated from their parents by U.S. officials at the border.

Maybe they’ll get their acts together. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who gave immigration authorities those deadlines for reuniting families, didn’t sound optimistic in his order last month.

“...there is no genuine dispute that the Government was not prepared to accommodate the mass influx of separated children. Measures were not in place to provide for communication between governmental agencies responsible for detaining parents and those responsible for housing children, or to provide for ready communication between separated parents and children. There was no reunification plan in place, and families have been separated for months."

Sabraw went out of his way to say he wasn’t ruling on the country’s immigration policy or whether the government can hold people in custody. It was, he said, only about when the government can split parents and children and how to reunite them after criminal proceedings are complete. He said the feds had no system or procedure to track children, to enable parent-child communication or to reunite families later.

“The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings,” Sabraw wrote. “Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainees’ release, at all levels — state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property.”

We’re all about to learn whether the U.S. government has closed that gap.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.

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