Judge urges U.S. to focus on reuniting deported parents with children

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A judge on Friday urged the U.S. government to focus on finding deported immigrant parents so it could reunite them with their children who remain in the United States following separation by officials at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months.

The government had declared it had met a court-ordered deadline to reunite families separated during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” aimed at discouraging illegal immigration.

U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw said at a court hearing in San Diego the government deserved credit for the 1,820 children released from custody to a parent or sponsor. However, he urged officials to focus on the 711 children who remain separated after the government deemed their parents ineligible because they were deported, the government was unable to find them in the United States or the parent failed a background check.

“The focus has to be on the parents removed without their children and the up to 52 parents released to the interior without their children,” Sabraw said at Friday’s hearing.

Sabraw seemed most concerned during Friday’s hearing with allegations that 120 parents who the government said had waived their right to reunification might have misunderstood what they were signing, or felt coerced.

The government has said it has given every detained parent notice of their legal rights, and contact information for an attorney.

The parents were “effectively being tortured” by the knowledge they accidentally signed forms waiving the right to their child, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said after the hearing.

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The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit that led to Sabraw’s reunification order, asked Sabraw to halt deportations of parents who waived their reunification rights and to give parents a week after being reunited with their children before being deported.

Parents needed time to consider legal options, such as leaving the child in the United States to pursue asylum on their own, the ACLU said.

The parents have largely fled violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to immigration advocates.

The government has said the parents already have adequate time to consider their rights, and granting the ACLU request was unwarranted.

Sabraw took the request under advisement.

Separately, a U.S. federal judge on Friday ordered the appointment of an independent monitor to report on conditions in federal detention centers housing immigrant children.

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At a Los Angeles court hearing, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said there appeared to be persistent problems at the centers and the monitor would review potential violations of the 1997 Flores settlement, which set standards for the facilities.

Rights groups on Friday criticized the government’s efforts to reunify immigrant children and parents as confused and chaotic.

The government acknowledged that it lacked the technical capability to quickly provide information about children separated from their parents, according to a court filing on Thursday.

Advocates said they were struggling to find immigrant families to confirm they had been matched with their children.

“The deadline is not the finish line,” said Efrén Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The work is only beginning and it will take many months.”

He said his group represented 382 families, and only 110 were reunited with their children. The others were deported without their child or in detention without their child and the group was trying to determine the fate of 200 parents.

Non-profit groups were providing cash and transportation to help families get on their feet, Olivares said.

“The government has literally left these people to fend for themselves,” Olivares said on a call with reporters. “It confirms that when the government started separating families earlier this summer they didn’t have a plan to reunite them.”

Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Tom Hals in Wilmington, Del.,; Reade Levinson in New York; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Tom Hals, Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool