U.S. judge suspends deportations of reunited immigrant families

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A federal judge temporarily barred the U.S. government on Monday from the rapid deportation of immigrant parents reunited with their children, while a court considers the impact on children’s rights to seek asylum.

The government is working to meet a court order to reunite around 2,550 children who were separated by U.S. immigration officials from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border.

The families had been separated as part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration by the administration of President Donald Trump, sparking an international outcry. The president ordered the practice stopped on June 20.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in court papers on Monday that, once reunited, immigrant parents who face deportation should have a week to decide if they want to leave their child in the United States to pursue asylum separately.

“A one-week stay is a reasonable and appropriate remedy to ensure that the unimaginable trauma these families have suffered does not turn even worse because parents made an uninformed decision about the fate of their child,” the rights group wrote.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego asked the government to respond and set a July 24 date for the next hearing. In the meantime, he halted rapid deportations.

In a related lawsuit filed on Monday in New York City, the Legal Aid Society sought a federal court order requiring U.S. immigration officials to give 48 hours advance notice of planned family reunifications, allowing parents a better chance to consult with lawyers about asylum or other options for their children.

At Monday’s hearing in California, the judge pressed back on a suggestion by a government attorney that quick deportations aided reunifications by creating more room for families in detention.

“The idea this would slow or stop reunifications, that’s not an option,” said Sabraw. “If space is an issue, the government will make space.”

Sabraw last month set a July 26 deadline for the government to reunite children who were separated from their parents at the border.

The majority have been matched with a parent, but the government is still trying to find parents for 71 children in its care, Jonathan White, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the court. All children under the age of 5 have been reunited, the government said.

However, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU, said after the hearing that he found it “extremely troubling that there are 71 children whose parents they haven’t been able to identify, much less reunify.”

Many immigrants separated from their children were seeking asylum after fleeing violence and crime in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Children were sent to multiple care facilities across the country, and their parents were incarcerated in immigration detention centers or federal prisons - in keeping with the government’s “zero tolerance” policy under which all adults crossing the border illegally would face prosecution.

Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Noeleen Walder and Frances Kerry