The U.S. will return immigrant children under five who were separated from their parents after crossing the Mexican border by July 10 to comply with a court order, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday.
The agency is analyzing the DNA of some children in its custody and adults who claim to be their parents to verify a family relationship, Azar said. He said the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for detaining and caring for undocumented immigrant children apprehended by authorities, is not sure precisely how many kids came into its care as a result of the Border Patrol taking them from their families.
The ORR program “was not designed to track the circumstances” behind a child’s arrival in the U.S., Azar said, and the Department of Homeland Security didn’t tell the refugee agency which children were taken from parents and which came over the border unaccompanied. The agency is now reviewing the cases of all 11,800 children in its custody to determine whether they were separated from caregivers.
Azar said less than 3,000 total were separated, and fewer than 100 under the age of five. DHS has located parents of the youngest children and moved them to detention centers closer to their kids so they can be reunited quickly after the refugee agency releases them.
The separations have become a political disaster for the Trump administration, roundly criticized by members of Congress in both parties amid public outrage. Border Patrol agents began taking immigrant children from their caregivers in the spring under the “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal border crossings that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April.
Under the approach, parents and other caregivers apprehended after crossing the border were arrested and jailed, and the government placed their children with HHS. The administration is now exploring the construction of camps on military bases and new detention centers to house undocumented migrant families together.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw on June 26 ordered the Trump administration to return immigrant children younger than five to their parents within two weeks. Children five and older must be reunited within 30 days. He also ordered the government to provide for communications between detained caregivers and their children and not to deport adults without their kids.
Logistically, that’s “not the easiest task,” Azar said. He called it an “unprecedented situation in connecting parents and children.”
Parents who were deported without their children likely asked that their kids remain in the U.S., Azar said. “Parents have a choice” when they’re removed from the country to leave their children behind, he said.