A federal judge on Friday rejected a Trump administration request to make the ACLU primarily responsible for locating migrant parents who were deported after they were separated from their children, making clear that the government bears "100 percent" of the burden.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said the ACLU and a team of non-governmental organizations, volunteers, and pro-bono attorneys can help locate about 400 parents who were deported and have not yet been located by the government. But Sabraw said that ACLU lawyers, who are representing plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, are not the ones who separated the families in the first place.
"The reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child, and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration," Sabraw said. "The government has the sole burden and responsibility and obligation to make (reunifications) happen."
The judge also scolded administration officials for moving so slowly to track down the deported parents. He cited an estimate that only about a dozen of the parents have been found in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, asking, "Is that true?"
The judge said the government needs to appoint an official or a leadership team from the State Department or the Department of Health and Human Services to step in and take charge. He said the process should be similar to that used last month when HHS appointed Jonathan White to reunite the first group of separated families, which led to more than 1,400 reunifications within the judge's 30-day deadline.
"What is absolutely essential ... is that the government identify a single person of the same talent and energy and enthusiasm and can-do spirit as Commander White to head up the reunification process of the remaining parents," Sabraw said. "There has to be someone to hold to account and to supervise the entire process."
Friday's hearing marked the latest step following the decision by President Donald Trump to implement a "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents.
The policy required that most people apprehended trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border were to be charged with a criminal violation and sent to immigration detention centers or federal prisons to await deportation hearings. That prompted the government to keep them apart from their children, due to a U.S. law and a 1997 court settlement, known as the Flores Settlement, that limits the detention of children to no more than 20 days.
The policy was widely condemned, and the president signed an executive order June 20 ending the practice to help mitigate the problem. A week later, Sabraw ruled that the practice may have violated the due process rights of the families and ordered the administration to reunite them within 30 days.
Lawyers on both sides are now at odds over whether the government has met the judge's deadlines and whether the government is doing enough to reunite parents who have been deported.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators grilled administration officials over the family separation crisis. During the hearing, a senior Department of Health and Human Services official said he repeatedly warned the Trump administration that the separation policy would not be in "the best interest of the child."
On Wednesday, a group of 14 bipartisan senators sent a letter to the heads of the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, demanding information on the status of separated families, including those where the parents have been deported.
And on Thursday, Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and senior adviser, weighed in, calling the family separation practice a "low point" in her father's presidency.
Sabraw is scheduled to hold another court hearing next week to get a status update from both sides on the reunification efforts.