A federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite all immigrant children that U.S. authorities separated from their parents over the last several months because of its stricter policy of prosecuting immigrants who enter the country illegally.
U.S. District Court judge Dana Sabraw, who is based in San Diego, issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday night requiring immigration officials to return children younger than 5 to their parents within 14 days and to reunite older children with their parents within 30 days.
Sabraw slammed the Trump administration for "a chaotic circumstance of the government's own making" and took issue with the "startling" failure of officials to plan for the housing, communication, and accounting of children separated from their parents and left in the care of U.S. authorities.
"The government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children," the judge wrote in his 24-page order. "The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency as property."
"Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process," the judge said.
The Trump administration had asked Sabraw to delay issuing his order while federal agencies furiously worked to implement Trump's executive order halting the separation of immigrant families who cross the southern border illegally.
On Wednesday a Justice Department spokesman said the judge's decision makes it "more imperative" that Congress act to give federal law enforcement the ability to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together.
"Without this action by Congress, lawlessness at the border will continue, which will only lead to predictable results—more heroin and fentanyl pushed by Mexican cartels plaguing our communities, a surge in MS-13 gang members, and an increase in the number of human-trafficking prosecutions."
The judge noted that the order does not impact the government's authority to enforce immigration or other criminal laws and only addresses circumstances under which the government may separate immigrant adults from their children.
The Trump administration on Saturday announced that it had started returning children to parents who are in the legal process of being prosecuted and deported back to their home countries.
On Monday the nation's top border enforcement official acknowledged that authorities had suspended their effort to prosecute all immigrant families who cross into the country illegally because they lacked enough facilities to hold the families together.
There were exceptions made for immigrants who have a criminal history or when the child's welfare was in question.
After a public firestorm over the family-separation policy dominated the news cycles for several days, last week President Trump signed an executive order to stop the family separations during criminal and immigration proceedings. The order also directed federal government agencies to provide detention facilities in order to house the immigrant families together while the parents faced the legal process of prosecution and likely deportation.
The executive order, however, did not specifically address the reunification of more than 2,000 children whom U.S. immigration authorities have separated from their parents over the past two months.
In Tuesday night's injunction, the judge said the U.S. government was not prepared to accommodate the mass influx of separated children and measures were not in place to provide communication between governmental agencies responsible for detaining parents and those responsible for housing children.
"There was no reunification plan in place, and families have been separated for months," he said. "Some parents were deported at separate times and different locations than their children."
Contradicting statements from Trump administration officials, the judge also said some immigrant parents that lawfully entered the United States at a port of entry and sought asylum were also separated from their children.
"Some parents were deported at separate times and at different locations than their children," the judge wrote in his order.
Sabraw, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, was responding to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed in February.
The case at issue started with a legal complaint from a Catholic citizen of the Democratic Republic of the Congo allegedly fleeing persecution from her home country because of her religious beliefs.
The plaintiff and her six-year-old daughter presented themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the San Diego border and sought asylum based on religious persecution.
They were initially detained together, but after a few days the pair was separated amid "screaming and crying" from the child who was pleading with guards not to take her away from her mother, according to the injunction.
Immigration officials said they had concerns that the woman was not the six-year-old's mother, despite their repeated claims and the daughter's obvious distress at the prospect of being taken from the woman.
The six-year-old was placed in a facility in Chicago, more than a thousand miles away from her mother, and was only allowed to speak with her daughter "approximately six times by phone, never by video" during their five-month separation.
The daughter was crying and scared each time they spoke, and the mother was terrified that she would never see her daughter again, according to a summary of the case in the injunction.
In the interim, immigration officials determined that the mother had a credible fear of persecution and allowed her to pursue her asylum claim.
After she filed the lawsuit, the mother was released from ICE detention. A court then ordered the government to take a DNA saliva sample, which confirmed that she was the girl's mother. Four days later the mother and daughter were reunited in March.
The ACLU also added another plaintiff to the lawsuit, a Brazilian woman who U.S. authorities separated from her 14-year-old son while she was prosecuted for crossing into the country illegally from Mexico.