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Judge Extends Authority To More Families Separated At Border

March 11, 2019 1:43 p.m.

GUEST: Jean Guerrero, border reporter, KPBS News

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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.

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Our top story on mid-day edition the U.S. government must reunite families separated at the border as long ago as July 1st 2017. San Diego federal Judge Dana Soboroff says he is expanding an earlier ruling by a year to include what could be thousands more children who were separated from their parents. The exact number is unknown. Joining me with more on the ruling and next steps is Kate PBS. Border reporter Jeanne Guerrero. Welcome Jeanne. Hey Jade. So Jeanne remind us what prompted Judge abroad to revisit his earlier ruling this January.

A government watchdog agency issued a report finding that potentially thousands more children had been separated from their parents than previously thought. So the government started doing this as policy in July of 2000 17. That's well before the zero tolerance policy was announced in the spring of 2013 when the judge initially filed his injunction on separations last summer he ordered the reunification of all families whose children were still in government custody on that date so June 26 2018.

And what did the government have to say about the prospects of reuniting more families ahead of this decision.

They said that they've already reunited nearly all of the roughly 28 hundred children under the first order and that it's unfair to ask them to reunite potentially thousands more. They called it an intensive and invasive burden during the last hearing and just kept repeating this idea that it was unfair. They also said that the ACLU should have known about the potentially thousands of other separations and included them in the class to begin with rather than bringing them up.

Now after the government had done so much work in good faith and did judge the broad respond to you know their criticism in his written decision.

Yes. So the judge said that the ACLU couldn't have known that there were potentially thousands more children separated because the government itself kept making statements at the time saying that there was no policy of separation. It was only later thanks to the OIG investigation that it became clear that there was a policy and that it had started in the summer of 2017 not last year. And I'm going to quote from the decision because it's such a powerful statement. He said quote The hallmark of a civilised society is measured by how it treats its people and those within its borders.

That defendants may have to change course and undertake additional effort to address these issues does not render modification of the class definition unfair. It only serves to underscore the unquestionable importance of the effort and why it is necessary and worthwhile.

End quote. And K PBS was covering these separations before the injunction was filed right.

Right. So we were following several cases of families being separated at the CDC to a port of entry as early as the fall of 2017. There was one asylum seeker from El Salvador who had his one year old son taken from him and they were separated for months and a congressional inquiry in February of 2013 actually cited our reporting asking DHS why it was separating families. And again this was before the zero tolerance policy was announced.

Why did they separate them without plans to reunite them.

So initially the government said that this was about enforcing the law that they were separated them because they had broken the law. But then it became apparent that this was a practice meant to deter people from coming to scare people from from coming to the border in the first place.

And what's known about how many children were separated and where those children are now and even their parents.

So aside from the 20 800 children who we know were separated and have been mostly reunified it's still very unclear how many more children were separated. It could be thousands. Some parents may have been deported. But but the judge said he he stressed that during the last hearing that that's why it's so important to have an accounting first. So when he modified the class definition to include anyone who may have been separated since the summer of 2017 he's not saying that every single person who fit that definition has to be reunified.

The reunification is one potential remedy. But the but the remedy could also be declaratory in which the government confesses it was unlawful. But but the main objective is is to be is to find these people and to and to identify who was subjected to this unlawful behavior.

And what do we know about where the children are now.

So that's that's kind of what the process that needs to take place right now is a notifying them. I mean they are likely to have have been released to sponsors and they're going to have to be identified. And it's possible that their parents have still have no idea where they are because some of these parents may have been deported.

And so the U.S. government has said it was not tracking separations at the time. Have they given any indication about how they might go about reuniting these families.

Not exactly but the ACLU said that they're they're willing to put together a steering committee to help the government identify these families. But again the difficulty is going to be finding them at all because the government kept such poor records while it was separating these families of where it was sending children and whose children they were there. There's just a really poor accounting and accounting needs to take place now and the next court date is March 28. What's likely to happen then they're going to start going over what the process may be for starting that very challenging task of finding these families who were separated legal.

The attorney at the ACLU says they're going to be asking the government for contact information on all of these families but he suspects that the Government will push back hard on that.

Children's lives are literally at stake and we need to do everything we can to make this right.

The ACLU and other nonprofits are willing to play an active role in finding the separated families but again they need the government's cooperation and that's what the judge has ordered.

I've been speaking with K PBS border reporter Jean Guerrero. Jeanne thanks. Thank you. K PBS is reaching out to the government for a response to judge the ruling.

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