More than 60 separated children remain in Arizona weeks after deadline to reunite families

It’s been six weeks since a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite all families separated at the border, but hundreds of children remain in government custody, including more than 60 children still living in Arizona shelters.

What’s more, it now appears increasingly likely that many of the separated children still in government custody may never be reunited because their parents intentionally or mistakenly waived their rights to reunification before being deported from the United States, advocates say.

“The parents face a brutal decision of whether to bring their child back in face of potentially serious persecution or to leave a child in the United States to pursue asylum which may mean they never see their child again,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who led a class action lawsuit to halt family separations at the border.

“It’s a decision that no parent should have to face and one that hundreds of families are now agonizing over because of the government’s family separation policy,’” Gelernt said. 

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416 separated children remain in U.S.

In all, 416 children of the 2,654 separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border policy remain in government custody, figures contained in the most recent status report filed by lawyers for the Department of Justice and the ACLU show.

Court filings do not say where the more than 400 separated children still in government custody are being held.

But Golden McCarthy director of the children’s program at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, told The Arizona Republic that about 61 of the separated children still in government custody are being held in shelters in Arizona.

The Florence Project provides legal representation to immigrants and unaccompanied minors being detained in Arizona. 

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The majority of the 61 children still being held in shelters in Arizona have parents who were deported without them, McCarthy said.

It’s now up to the parents and the children to decide whether the child should be sent back to their home country or whether the child should remain in the United States to seek asylum on their own, she said.

“Each case is different as far as what the child wants, but I think the older the child typically the more likely they would like to remain in the U.S. and seek legal relief,” McCarthy said.

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Those children who decided to seek asylum in the U.S. after their parents have been deported will remain in shelters until they are placed with sponsors or in long-term foster care, she said.

The latest status report showed that 304 of the 416 children still in government custody had not been reunited because their parents had been deported without them.

“More than 300 parents were deported without their children leaving their children behind to languish behind in government custody,” Gelernt said. “We need to find these parents as quickly as possible and we also need to determine why children whose parents remain in the United States haven’t been reunited. This continues to be a crisis that has gone on far too long.”

Figures provided by Justice Department lawyers in the most recent status report show that 199 parents waived rights to be reunified with their children before they were deported. 

 Advocates are trying to determine whether all parents who signed documents waived their reunification rights intentionally or whether they were pressured by the government.

“We are going back and asking each parent to tell us what their decision is so that we don’t have to rely on the government’s claim that the parents are waiving reunification,” Gelernt said. “We are concerned that the government may have obtained waivers in a misleading or coercive manner.”

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Justice Department lawyers and the ACLU are scheduled to file an updated status report on Thursday ahead of Friday’s weekly hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego.

Sabraw has vowed to hold weekly hearings until the government reunites all children separated from their parents at the border, while acknowledging that may not be possible in some cases for a variety of reasons, including those whose parents have been deported and waived reunification, and those whose parents are facing criminal charges and remain in local, state or federal custody.

The Trump administration separated 2,654 children from their parents after crossing the border illegally together under a zero-tolerance policy aimed at stemming the flow of families, mostly from poverty and violence-plagued countries in Central America or regions of Mexico, arriving without documents in hopes of staying permanently in the United States by asking for asylum.

The Trump administration ended the practice on June 20 amid fierce criticism, and shortly after Sabraw ordered the government to reunify all separated children younger than 5 by July 10 and those ages 5 to 17 by July 26.

Of the 2,654 children initially identified as separated, 2,181 are no longer in government custody, either because they were reunited with their parents or placed with sponsors, and 57 the government now says were not  separated, leaving 416 still in government custody, court filings show. 

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