Capable, Not Willing: Reuniting Families Could Take Longer If Administration Doesn’t Make it a Priority

As readers of SayAhhh! already know, the President’s Executive Order (EO) on family separation at the U.S. border raised more questions than it answered and had many disturbing implications. The EO did not end family separation as it purported. Instead, the EO outlined a policy to detain families indefinitely while seeking the authority to end the legal protections for children under the Flores Settlement.

But, less than a week after the EO, in response to a case filed by the ACLU back in February, a federal District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the Administration to stop separating families—unless it is genuinely in the child’s best interest—and begin rapidly reuniting families already separated. Specifically, the court ordered the Administration to reunify families forcibly separated at the border within 14 days for children under 5 years old and within 30 days for older children. The court also required the Administration to allow parents to speak to their children by phone within 10 days and prohibited the Administration from removing parents without their children.

While the court ruling offers some relief, recent reports indicate that the federal government doesn’t even know where all the children are and has no system in place to begin reuniting them with their parents. So reasonable people have asked, assuming this court ruling goes forward (without being appealed and the injunction stayed), is it even possible for the government to meet the standards the court laid out? In an interview with the ACLU attorney, Lee Gelernt, NPR host Steve Inskeep asked this very question. Here’s what Gelernt had to say:

Yes. I do believe it’s possible. The overarching point, I think, is that when the United States government prioritizes something and they make it urgent, they can get it done. They just have enormous resources. And I think the problem up till now is they’ve been intentionally separating these children and not wanting to get them back together. If they now prioritize this, the–which the judge said they have to do, they can get it done. They can also rely on the enormous nonprofit network that’s ready to help them and all of the volunteers. There should be no reason the United States government can’t get these 2,000 kids back with their parents within 30 days.

I think we can all agree with Gelernt that if the U.S. government prioritizes something, it can eventually get it done, especially if working in concert with outside groups reaching for the same goal. In this case, the system of checks and balances may have worked to set the goal— end family separation and quickly reunite families already separated.

Some families have apparently been reunited, but HHS still has 2,047 children in custody who were separated from their families under the zero tolerance policy. And the Department of Justice is still seeking to amend the Flores Settlement so that they can detain children for longer than 20 days (indefinitely) in unlicensed facilities.

About a quarter of children living in the U.S. have at least one immigrant parent, coming from lots of different religious backgrounds and from all over the world. Judging the Administration by its actions to date, the only clear priority is to make it harder and harder for children in immigrant families to live healthy, productive lives. While Gelernt is probably right that the U.S. government is capable of reuniting families within 30 days, we have to keep asking whether this Administration is willing.

Kelly Whitener
Kelly Whitener is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the Center for Children and Families

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