A U.S. federal judge has ordered the government to reunite immigrant parents and children it separated after they crossed the border, as part of a preliminary injunction halting those separations unless the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw granted the injunction in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of some of the families authorities split up by detaining parents in one facility and their children in another.
The practice has led to more than 2,300 immigrant children being separated since President Donald Trump instituted a "zero tolerance" policy two months ago with the goal of prosecuting everyone who illegally crossed the border. Trump has repeatedly advocated for tighter border security and changes to who is allowed to enter the United States through legal immigration paths.
Sabraw ordered children under the age of five be reunited with their parents within 14 days and all other minor children be reunited within 30 days.
The judge sharply criticized the implementation of the Trump administration's policy, saying the multiple government agencies involved in border security, immigration enforcement, detentions and refugee programs were not ready to accommodate the mass influx of separated children.
"Measures were not in place to provide for communication between governmental agencies responsible for detaining parents and those responsible for housing children, or to provide for ready communication between separated parents and children. There was no reunification plan in place, and families have been separated for months."
Sabraw cited the existing systems in place to keep track of money, documents and other personal property of detainees, saying it is a "startling reality" that authorities were unprepared to do the same with children.
In addition to ordering the children be reunited, Sabraw also said the government should take all necessary steps to facilitate regular communication between parents and children detained in separate facilities, and that parents cannot be deported without their children.
The judge said the government raised concerns about an injunction preventing authorities from enforcing criminal and immigration laws, but that it would not do so.
"The government would remain free to enforce its criminal and immigration laws, and to exercise its discretion in matters of release and detention consistent with law," Sabraw wrote.
American Civil Liberties Union
The ACLU welcomed the ruling, which the government is free to appeal.
"This ruling is an enormous victory for parents and children who thought they may never see each other again. Tears will be flowing in detention centers across the country when the families learn they will be reunited," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking at an event Wednesday in Los Angeles, defended the administration's immigration policies as necessary for safety and security.
"This immigration question is a decisive issue for our time as the president often says a country without borders is not a country," Sessions said. "I don't know why that's so hard for some people to understand. In the United States. We have the most generous immigration laws in the world."
After sharp criticism, Trump issued an executive order last week maintaining his "zero tolerance" prosecution policy, but saying parents and children could be detained together.
The ACLU said the order did nothing to address the harm already done to parents and children authorities split up, and that children did not belong in detention at all.
Members of Congress have been trying to tackle the issue through a series of proposed bills ranging from those dealing only with separations to more comprehensive immigration reform measures.
While the legal battles continue, the House of Representatives is set to vote Wednesday on a bill to put into law a policy to keep families together if they are caught crossing the border illegally.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said, "We have made it extremely clear we want to keep families together, and we want to secure the border and enforce our laws," House Speaker Paul Ryan said. "We should be able to do all of those, and that is the legislation we are supporting and proposing.”
Trump has requested lawmakers also approve more funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, "so we can finish it quickly" to thwart more illegal immigration.
Most of the migrants stopped by U.S. border agents have trekked for weeks from violence-ravaged Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador through Mexico to reach the United States.
The White House announced that Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen will discuss immigration Thursday in Guatemala with top officials from the three Central American countries.
The top U.S. border enforcement official acknowledged Monday authorities are unable to carry out the ban on illegal migrants entering the country because it does not have enough beds to keep the families together while the parents are prosecuted.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters in Texas he stopped sending cases of parents charged with illegally entering the country to prosecutors after Trump signed an executive order last week to stop the separation of migrant parents and children.
McAleenan insisted the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy remains in effect, despite the current challenges, and said he is working on a plan to resume prosecutions.