Children under the age of five have been reunited with the parents from whom they were previously separated after illegally crossing the border, the Trump administration announced early Thursday.
Fifty-seven children had been returned to their parents as of seven a.m., according to a joint statement from the Homeland Security, Departments of Justice, and Health and Human Services—the entities responsible for apprehending, prosecuting, and housing illegal immigrants, respectively. Another 46 children were not reunified, as they were judged ineligible for reunification.
Disqualifications include 22 children who were not reunified due to concerns that they would not be safe with the adult with whom they crossed the border. Another 24 were not reunified because their parent had been deported or was currently in state or federal custody awaiting trial.
The families will be released from custody with an ankle monitor and orders to appear before an immigration judge for further hearings, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said.
The announcement comes two days after the court-ordered deadline for the reunification, a delay which Health and Human Services officials attributed to the need to follow proper procedures to ensure the safety of children returned to the adult with whom they crossed the border.
"Throughout the reunification process, our goal has been the well-being of the children and returning them to a safe environment. Our agencies' careful vetting procedures helped prevent the reunification of children with an alleged murderer, an adult convicted of child cruelty, and adults determined not to be the parent of the child," read a joint statement from the departments.
The reunification resolves a court order in the case of Ms. L. v. ICE, a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of illegal immigrant parents who had been separated from their children at the border. A federal judge ordered that children under five be reunified just over two weeks ago (i.e., two weeks plus the two days over deadline).
Federal authorities now have two weeks to reunify all detained individuals under the age of 18, according to the federal judge’s order. It is not clear how many of these there are—a representative of HHS told members of the press Thursday morning that a full list would be released to the plaintiffs in Ms. L. later in the afternoon. The Washington Post estimated Monday that between 1,425 and 1,720 minors age five and over were still being held by HHS.
The administration quietly announced on Tuesday it would shift away from its zero-tolerance approach of criminally prosecuting all adults who cross the border, planning instead to release some detained family units with ankle monitoring, rather than separate them and hold the parents in federal criminal custody.
The administration likely has backed off of zero-tolerance because it finds its hands tied in efforts to enforce immigration law along the border. Prosecution of adults, and the concurrent separation of family members, was rejected by the judge in Ms. L. But keeping families together in DHS custody, as President Donald Trump ordered in June, runs afoul of the 1997 Flores settlement agreement, which stipulates that children must be released "without unnecessary delay."
Trump, as part of his order, sought to have Flores modified to permit the keeping together of families in DHS custody for the sake of zero-tolerance prosecution. However, a federal judge denied this request Tuesday, calling it "procedurally improper and wholly without merit."
For now, it appears that the administration will use ankle monitoring to try to ensure that individuals who arrive as part of a family—referred to as "family units" in enforcement lingo—actually show up for their court date. Some 9,000 family units crossed the border in June, a number which has not declined substantially over the course of zero-tolerance’s implementation. Around a third of illegal immigrants do not show up to court hearings, although it is not clear what effect ankle monitors will have on this rate.