Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2018

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Government missing deadlines in family reunification case

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Steve Marcus

Victoria Willson, center, chants during a “Families Belong Together” demonstration by the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas Saturday, June 30, 2018. Organizers say more than 700 similar events were held around the country.

Updated Thursday, July 26, 2018 | 3:50 p.m.

The federal government is expected to miss another family reunification deadline for those separated under its zero-tolerance prosecution policy for immigrants crossing the border illegally.

A judge told the government that it had until the end of today to reunify all children with their families. Federal officials designated more than 1,600 that it could reunify by the deadline, excluding more than 400 parents who have already been deported without their children, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead attorney in the lawsuit fighting the policy.

The only deadline the government could meet today was its own “self-defined” deadline, Gelernt said during a conference call with reporters.

“Obviously the deported families are eligible for reunification,” he said. “The only way to describe it is that the judge, facing the reality that the government has made such a mess of things and has deported so many people already, just recognized that he’s going to have to let them do it in stages because there’s just no way logistically that they’re going to be able to reunify everyone by the deadline.”

An injunction gave the government until July 10 to reunify children under the age of 5, a deadline that was not met. All other children were to be reunited with family members by today. The government has also failed to turn over details on these families, due last week, according to the ACLU.

After the missed July 10 deadline, Gelernt said, the ACLU was asked by the court to provide steps to expedite the process. He said that may happen again if the court decides the government missed the full reunification deadline.

There are about 40 children whose parents have not been identified, Gelernt said. Investigations to find deported parents are ongoing in the U.S. and abroad, he said — searches that can be complicated by the very governments these immigrants are trying to flee.

At least two parents detained under the zero-tolerance policy have been held in Nevada. A Nevada immigration attorney representing one of those parents, a father who was sent to Nevada and then Texas after he was separated from his 5-year-old daughter, was initially told the wrong location where her client was being held.

“The (U.S.) government really didn’t track these well, that’s become clear over time,” Gelernt said. “I don’t think I understood how poorly they tracked the families until we got deep into the case.”

If the judge in the case lifts a preliminary injunction stopping the deportations under the policy, Gelernt said, families with final removal orders would be immediately eligible for deportation.

Some parents have have also waived, verbally or in writing, reunification without knowing that’s what they were agreeing to, Gelernt said, and those waivers need to be revisited. The government has deemed some parents unfit to take custody of their children based on past criminal convictions, and Gelernt said the ACLU wants to make sure those designations have been made appropriately.

The government does not have to detain these families, Gelernt said, but could release them with ankle bracelets as their cases progress. More than 1,800 children have been reunited with parents and sponsors designated to take care of them. There are still 700 children separated from their parents.

A hearing in the case is set for tomorrow. Gelernt said the ACLU plans to continue pushing for details on individuals impacted by the policy and ask for a seven-day stay of removal for reunified families, starting from the time the ACLU is notified that the family is back together. Gelernt said this will give families time to decide whether they want to fight for asylum, or accept deportation for some or all relatives.

“These families have had virtually no chance to talk with each other about the decision they want to make, which is obviously a potentially life-altering decision,” Gelernt said.

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