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US Sees Limitations On Reuniting Migrant Families

February 4, 2019 1:20 p.m.

GUEST: Elliot Spagat, San Diego correspondent, Associated Press

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The Federal Government says it doesn't know if it can or even if it would be a good idea to reunite possibly thousands of migrant children with their parents. An internal audit of the Health and Human Services Department last month found that many more families had been separated at the border than previously reported. The ACLU is now asking federal Judge Dana surprise court here in San Diego to expand its family reunification order to include children separated earlier than the zero tolerance policy announced last year. Joining me now by Skype is Elliot Baggett San Diego correspondent for The Associated Press and Elliot welcome to the program.

Thanks Maureen. Now why did the Government's say it could not reunite the separated children from their parents.

It would take a lot of time. Basically they did not have systems in place to track kids who were separated before Judge surprise order last June. These were some declarations from Health and Human Services officials in this court filing. One of them said it would take up to 471 days for a hundred employees just to identify potential kids who were separated from their parents and they went on to say that there might be harm caused to these children in reuniting them with their parents.

What. What do they mean by that.

Health and Human Services takes custody of the child when the Customs and Border Protection separates the family. Generally they will release them. The vast majority of cases release them to what's called a sponsor and these sponsors are in about half of the cases they're the parents. So that's not an issue here. The other half it's about 40 percent are close relatives to like an aunt or uncle Kwan grandparent adult sibling and then 10 percent roughly are distant relatives or like a cousin or a family friend or something like that.

So what the government's saying is that it would be a bad idea bad for child welfare to take the child from the uncle or the aunt or the grandmother cousin and give them back to the child that it would be damaging it would be emotionally harmful to the child.

And do they further go on to say why that would be an emotionally destabilizing thing for the child to go back to its own parents.

No they don't. This will be briefed out. You know though they'll file some more briefs and there's a hearing before Judge Sabra on February 21st. There is a longstanding policy that predates President Trump to separate children when there is a concern over their child welfare. There are there's a serious medical issue that the parent has or the parent has a serious criminal record. But you know it's a fairly opaque process. We really don't know. There's not a lot of opportunity for the parents to push back on that. So we'll see this.

This will sort of play out in court I think.

And do we know how many children separated children we're talking about thousands probably under judges Broad's order that the Health and Human Services again they didn't have the computers and DHS and Health and Human Services didn't really talk to each other so they started just with the kids who are separated. As of that date of his order June 26 2013 and they came up with it. Twenty seven hundred plus most of those have been reunited with their with their parents twenty one hundred or so and then the rest are with sponsors. But going back before that order that was the subject of the Health and Human Services watchdog internal watchdog report last month and they did not have a precise count but they said it was thousands family separations ramped up pretty sharply during Trump's first year before it kind of blew into the public view.

There was a trial run in El Paso. You know the numbers like I just said to probably in the thousands.

Now the ACLU is calling on the government to reunite these children with their families. How did ACLU respond to the government's concerns that reuniting the children with their parents could cause harm.

They just issued a press release on on Friday night. These filings were made late Friday night and they just said it was shocking that the government was unable to locate these kids which is they didn't say they were unable if they were very very difficult they would need a big staffing increase.

They also said that you know it's just not acceptable that they're not willing to try there's another hearing in this case it's now set for February 21st.

What's supposed to happen then the ACLU like you said it has asked for the kids to be reunited with their parents. Those who were separated before June 2018 and they didn't specify how far they want to go back. The filing on Friday the Health and Human Services said there's like forty eight thousand cases something like that forty seven thousand over the last since July 1st 2017. So you know they would have to go through each one of those and spend eight hours on each wall up to eight hours on each one just to go back to July 2000 2017.

But we don't know how far the ACLU wants to go back and whether Judge Broadwell will even agree to it as judge surprised. Given any indication as to whether or not he's going to entertain this as as part of the action of the ACLU he is the one who ordered the government to respond to the report this very critical report by the Health and Human Services Inspector General which came out in mid-January and that he had ordered that they submit these filings in response to that report by Friday. Beyond that to my knowledge he hasn't given any indication of how he's going to rule.

I've been speaking with Elliot's Baggett. He is San Diego correspondent for The Associated Press. Elliot thank you very much. Thank you.