With Deadline Looming, Authorities Scramble to Reunite Migrant Families

The federal government was rushing on Thursday to reunite the last 1,634 migrant families separated at the Southwest border who have been deemed “eligible” for reunification, in the final hours of a court-ordered scramble to reverse a contentious immigration policy that drew international condemnation.

While the government appeared to be on track to meet Thursday’s deadline, its work to address the effects of family separation is far from over. The parents who were deemed eligible for reunification represent only about a third of all those who were separated from their children after crossing the border, a practice that began last summer and escalated in May.

At least 917 other parents were not cleared to recover their children this week because they failed criminal background or parental verification checks. About 460 others appeared to have been deported without their children, and the government has yet to find them.

Their futures, along with those of about 37 children whose parents have not yet been identified, remain uncertain.

“The only deadline they are meeting is the one they have set for themselves,” said Lee Gelernt, lead counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal lawsuit challenging the family separations. “The government should not be getting applause for cleaning up their own mess, but moreover, they’re still not meeting the deadline for all the families.”

Still, it appeared that the judge handing the case, Dana M. Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, was inclined to allow the government some leeway in complying with his order to rapidly bring separated families back together.

“The parties are really working through the issues in a very measured and successful way given the enormity of the undertaking,” Judge Sabraw said at a status hearing early this month.

The reunifications have unfolded in chaotic scenes across the country. Many have been concentrated in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where families have been funneled into federal offices that were designated as “staging facilities,” overwhelming local resources to the extent that some parents have had to wait days after arriving to rejoin their children.

At one such facility in South Texas, the Port Isabel Detention Center, the government has been labeling some parents as “released” while they are still in custody, according to Bethany Carson, who works for Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit advocacy group in Austin.

Ms. Carson said that hundreds of parents were sent to Port Isabel in recent weeks. After receiving word in the middle of the night from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials that their children had arrived, the parents quickly changed into street clothes and were broken into groups of about 70 to wait to be reconnected.

Some waited up to a week, Ms. Carson said, and were not allowed access to showers, phones or religious services, while efforts stalled to return their children.

“They’re completely cut off from the outside world,” she said. “And officials are saying they’re free.”

Last-minute logistical planning to meet the deadline has led to some mistakes. Some children have been sent to the wrong facilities, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the reunification efforts.

On Tuesday, two siblings, 9 and 14, were abruptly flown from New York to be reunited with their mother in the Southwest — but the mother may have already been deported, according to the children’s lawyer, Priya Konings. On Wednesday, a case worker was in “panic mode” trying to resolve the situation.

The hours and days after reunification have come with their own challenges, which have largely been absorbed by aid groups tapped by the government to provide emergency shelter and food, as well as transport. While it is not typical for the government to support migrants once they are released from federal custody, the separation policy left many families far from the border, where a long-established network of shelters and volunteer organizations have traditionally provided support.

Danielle Bernard, a spokeswoman for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of two organizations working with the government on family reunifications, said her group, too, was feeling the time crunch of the court order.

Ms. Bernard said that the organization’s two offices coordinating efforts in Arizona and New Mexico were given only a few days to prepare to receive about 300 families — or at least 600 people in all.

“This has really been something completely new to all of us,” Ms. Bernard said. “Usually we have weeks or months to develop programs to make sure people have the support they need. In this situation we’ve been given like 24 hours’ notice.”

After their immediate needs are met, many families have relied on donated travel miles, cellphones and money, pooled by advocates, to regain some stability. Well-established groups with powerful donor networks, such as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, and Fwd.us, an advocacy group backed by tech entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, have raised tens of millions of dollars to pay for immigration court bonds and plane tickets.

Amateur fund-raisers have also been crucial, such as one called Immigrant Families Together that was started by a former social worker and two theater professionals in New York. The group has helped about a dozen reunified parents and raised more than $400,000.

Julie Schwietert Collazo, the group’s founder, echoed the frustration expressed by many such advocates over why the responsibility has fallen to them, rather than the government, to complete the reunifications. “You could at least make the gesture of not dropping them off at a Greyhound station,” she said, “and saying ‘Bye, it’s been real.’”

Families that remained in custody after they were reunited have poured into three large family detention facilities, where the government can hold them for 20 days. Those are likely families for whom the government has already issued deportation orders — 900 of them, according to the latest court filings — which could be quickly executed if Judge Sabraw lifts a temporary stay on such deportations. A court hearing on that issue was scheduled for Friday evening.

Immigrant lawyers volunteering at the family detention facilities were bracing to receive dozens more families on Thursday, and expected to prepare some of them for the initial interviews needed to pursue a case for asylum, which may represent their only hope of remaining in the United States.

The government quietly began separating families along the Southwest border last summer, and ramped the practice up significantly in May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would have “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossers. The practice was intended in part to deter migrant families from traveling to the United States, though the administration insisted for months that it did not have a family separation policy, and blamed Democrats and Congress for tying their hands.

Facing bitter, bipartisan condemnation of the policy, President Trump ended it with an executive order on June 20.

By that time, nearly 3,000 children had been taken from their parents. Their separations were challenged in a lawsuit by the A.C.L.U., after which Judge Sabraw ordered that the children under 5 years of age be reunited with their parents by July 10, and those ages 5 to 17 by July 26.

Judge Sabraw ordered the goverment to file a status report with updated figures on reunifications by late Thursday. Lawyers on both sides agree that much work remains, especially when it comes to locating about 460 parents who appear to have been deported. Government lawyers have said the parents will not be allowed back into the country to retrieve their children, but they must be found and vetted before the children can be returned to their native countries.

The A.C.L.U. filed a motion on Wednesday to protect parents whom the government has claimed have waived their rights to immediately recover their children, citing testimony from some who said they did not know what they had agreed to because documents were not translated into their native languages, or who felt they had been forced to sign documents under duress. Most of the cases involve parents who are still in custody.

A Department of Homeland Security official disputed the accounts, saying that the agency’s procedures call for the consent form to be read to parents in a language they understand, with provisions to certify that this occurred.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers may also seek government support to address the psychological toll of family separation. Some children have not recognized their parents after being returned. Others continue to ask if the government is going to take them away again, said Mr. Gelernt of the A.C.L.U. “That feeling of insecurity in the children is likely to last a lifetime,” he said.


An earlier version of this article misstated the date on which President Trump signed his executive order. It was June 20, not June 26.

Liz Robbins contributed reporting.