Judge: Trump administration has ‘sole burden’ to locate migrant parents separated from children

A federal judge on Friday made clear that the Trump administration must locate hundreds of deported and released migrant parents who have been separated from their children at the border.

“The reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said during a court conference by telephone. “And that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.”

The Justice Department argued in a court filing Thursday that the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents plaintiffs in the case, should use its “considerable resources” to locate the parents.

Sabraw rejected that contention during the conference Friday. “The government has the sole burden and responsibility and obligation to make this happen,” he said.

The reunification process is an ongoing effort set in motion by a June 25 order by Sabraw that required the administration to join families that had been split apart at the border.

The Justice Department said in a court filing Thursday that 1,979 children had been reunified with parents or sponsors, but 572 children had parents who were either deemed ineligible for reunification or “not available for discharge at this time.”

Of the remaining separated children in federal custody, 410 had a parent outside the U.S., likely as a result of deportation or voluntary departure. Another 68 children had parents who were released into the U.S., but hadn’t been contacted yet. In the cases of 15 children, the parents’ locations remained “under case file review.”

Of the deported parents, only 12 or 13 appeared to have been located, according to the court filing.

“I think we’ve come to a point in the reunification process where the stakes are perhaps the highest,” Sabraw said Friday. “For every parent who’s not located, there’s a real consequence here.”

The federal judge called on the Trump administration to develop a plan to track down the missing parents and appoint an official to oversee the process.

“There has to be someone to hold to account and to supervise the entire process, to propose to the parties and the court a road map of how this is going to be accomplished,” Sabraw said.

He praised the leadership of Commander Jonathan White, an HHS official, during the earlier stages of the reunification process and pressed for the administration to find an official with similar “talent and energy and enthusiasm and can-do spirit” to deal with the ongoing challenges.

Sabraw also ordered the ACLU to come up with its own reunification plan that explains how it will use information provided by the government to assist reunification efforts. The civil liberties group should designate the lead attorney or nongovernmental organization to spearhead the effort, he said.

“Right now, there’s really nothing in place,” he said.

Sabraw, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said he intended to issue a related order in the coming days.

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