U.S. officials say they expect to reunite all eligible children who had been separated from their parents after entering the country illegally by Thursday’s court-ordered deadline (0700 UTC Friday).
The Justice Department said in a court filing Thursday afternoon in San Diego that more than 1,400 children 5 years old and older had been reunited so far. It said 378 were released in what it calls “appropriate circumstances,” meaning they were turned over to sponsors who can properly care for them.
But 700 children are still in government custody and their fates are uncertain.
Many of their parents have been deported from the United States, leaving the children in what one immigration advocacy group calls a “black hole.”
In some cases, government lawyers said the parents are criminals or unfit to care for children.
Immigration attorneys said some of the parents who returned home alone may have been led to believe by the government that going back to their own country is the only way they can see their kids again.
Lawyers for the America Civil Liberties Union say they have advocates on the ground in such places as Honduras and Guatemala and will investigate that allegation.
“The government shouldn’t be proud of the work they’re doing on reunification,” Lee Gelernt of the ACLU said Thursday. “We created this cruel, inhumane policy … now we’re trying to fix it in every way we can and make these families whole.”
Under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, families who illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico in most of April and May were automatically detained.
But because it is illegal to put children in jail, the youngsters were taken away from their parents and held separately.
Visitors to these detention centers reported seeing children held in cages in less than ideal conditions and given little to occupy their time all day.
Trump signed an executive order rescinding the family separations after a nationwide outcry, including from many fellow Republicans.
A judge gave officials two separate deadlines to reunite children younger than 5 and children 5 and older.
Many of the parents have been given ankle bracelets after being reunited with their children so they will not skip a hearing for asylum.