Trump appears to walk back 'zero tolerance' immigration policy as it rushes to reunite families

The Baltimore Sun

The Trump administration appeared on Tuesday to significantly pull back from its “zero tolerance” immigration policy as it rushed to reunite families to satisfy a court order, saying it will largely release families with ankle bracelet monitoring rather than indefinitely detaining the migrant children and parents together.

Administration officials said just 38 of 102 children under age 5 were expected to be reunited with their families by Tuesday, the deadline set by a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego. In a joint midmorning filing, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Justice said only four families had been reunited so far.

The reunifications were taking place near the shelters where the children were being detained, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which did not give further details. Officials said the reunifications were expected to continue throughout the day.

At least one of the young migrant children sent to Maryland facilities was expected to be reunited with relatives on Tuesday, according to a foster agency involved in the process.

"Parents with children under the age of 5 are being reunited with their children and then released and enrolled into an alternative detention program, meaning that they will be placed on an ankle bracelet and released into the community,” said Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations.

The abrupt reversal of the administration’s detention policy came on the heels of a federal judge in Los Angeles on Monday rejecting the Justice Department’s bid to hold the immigrant families in custody indefinitely.

U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee denied a request by administration attorneys to modify a long-standing legal settlement outlining strict requirements for the way immigrant minors are detained, dealing a blow to federal authorities’ plans.

Asked about reuniting families at the White House on Tuesday before departing for Europe, President Donald J. Trump said he had a “solution” to the situation: “Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don't come to our country illegally. Come like other people do, come legally.”

He defended ICE from accusations that it has mishandled immigrant minors’ cases, saying the agency’s work was necessary.

"We want borders where borders mean something. Without borders you do not have a country,” he said.

The ankle bracelet “is a tool that we use to encourage compliance” and ensure that parents appear for their hearings, Albence said.

Attorneys for the government had previously argued that releasing those who were caught crossing the border illegally while their immigration cases were pending encourages others to attempt to do the same.

Albence said the ankle bracelet would be the method used “in general” but emphasized that authorities would handle each family on a case-by-case basis.

Of the 102 minors under the age of 5 detained apart from their families, 14 are ineligible for reunification because they had parents with serious criminal histories, were determined by DNA testing to be unrelated to the alleged parent, or in one case, had credible evidence of child abuse, according to Chris Meekins, a senior official for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sixteen other adults had cleared their criminal background checks and were waiting for verification of their parentage, according to officials. Twenty other adults were eligible for reunification but could not be reunified by July 10 due to “legitimate logistical impediments.” Twelve of those 20 were removed from the U.S., and eight were released into the U.S. while awaiting further screening.

A total of 10 children separated from their families at the border were being cared for in Maryland, federal officials had told Gov. Larry Hogan. It wasn’t clear Tuesday how many of them have been reunited with their parents or other relatives.

Officials with Bethany Christian Services, a private fostering group, said they expected to help reunify seven children in the youngest age group on Tuesday. Those children are in their care in Michigan and Maryland, and officials declined to specify how many were in each state.

The status of children being cared for by other organizations in Maryland and that of older children was not immediately clear. State officials said they had no information on reunification.

More than 2,000 migrant children were separated when the Trump administration imposed a “zero tolerance” policy of filing criminal charges against adults who crossed the border illegally. When the parents were taken into federal custody for prosecution, the children were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and placed into temporary care around the country.

Officials with Bethany, which is headquartered in Michigan, said the seven children being reunited with their parents are the only ones younger than 5 that remain in their care.

Chris Palusky, Bethany’s chief executive, said the organization has been working to track down parents for weeks and developing reunification plans.

“We’ve been proactive in this,” Palusky said. “We’ve been reuniting kids almost since the beginning.”

A Texas-based advocacy group said it had offered to post up to $20 million in bond to speed up the release of children separated from their parents. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services said the sum was donated by more than 1 million individuals worldwide and would fund up to 2,500 cases.

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