A federal judge told the government Tuesday that it must move faster to reunite children taken from their parents at the southwest border, even as the Trump administration said many separated families aren't eligible for reunification.
From Michigan to Arizona, some of the youngest children placed in government custody as part of President Donald Trump's border crackdown were handed over to parents who had been released from detention, given ankle monitors and told to await future deportation proceedings.
A 27-year-old Honduran man who asked to be identified by only his first name, José, said his 3-year-old son didn't recognize him at first when they were united in Phoenix on Tuesday. José said he tried to kiss and hug the boy, but he was stiff and cried inconsolably.
"I asked him if he was upset with me," José said. "And he just looked at me. He didn't say anything and then I prodded him and he said, 'yes.' It broke my heart."
Photos and videos posted to Twitter by a reporter for the local ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, showed Ever Reyes Mejia, 30, tightly clutching his curly-haired 3-year-old after they were reunited at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
"Here, look, we're going to go in this convertible," a woman leading them down the sidewalk said in Spanish, according to the videos, as Mejia nuzzled the smiling boy's cheek. "Look at this car, buddy," the woman said to the child. "Do you see? OK? You need to sit in this little seat."
The families were immediately showered with offers of food, shelter, clothing and toys from a legion of volunteers.
But many other parents and children were still awaiting information about when they would be reunited, despite a court order from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to return all 102 children ages 4 and younger by Tuesday. Sabraw has said all separated children - a group the government says numbers "under 3,000," must be reunited with their parents by July 26.
Ricardo de Anda, an immigration lawyer who represents four children under the age of 5 who were being held in Phoenix and New York City, said he had not heard anything from federal officials about reunification plans.
"I'm in touch with all their mothers and nothing has happened," de Anda said from Laredo, Texas. "There's a tight group of asylum lawyers down here and no one jumped out to say their client was reunited. We are all sort of scratching our heads."
The government told Sabraw it would return 38 of the youngest separated children to their parents by Tuesday night, and would reunite more once DNA testing and other checks were complete.
But Sabraw said he believed as many as 63 children could be released Tuesday, or soon afterward, if the government streamlined the process and worked harder to locate parents who were no longer detained.
"There's still much time left today," he said from the bench during a late-morning hearing in San Diego. "These are firm deadlines. They're not aspirational goals."
Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian said 75 of the children are eligible for release. Another 27 cannot be immediately be reunited for various reasons, she said. Some did not cross the border with their parents. Others have parents who are serving criminal sentences. Some parents have serious criminal histories, including for child abuse, and may be deemed unfit.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the parents in the class-action lawsuit, said U.S. officials "have not even tried" to return 12 children to parents who were deported, and should have more quickly found and vetted eight parents who were released in the United States.
Most of the parents of the youngest children were being released from custody to await immigration hearings or deportation proceedings, the government said. But lawyers signaled in court that the government could seek to detain parents and older children after they are reunited. Officials have considered using military installations for that purpose.
Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said no migrants are being held now on U.S. military bases, but federal officials have asked the Pentagon to make room for up to 20,000 unaccompanied minors and as many as 12,000 family members. The process could take weeks.
Under a federal consent decree, the children would have to be released from detention within 20 days, a protection that was affirmed Monday night when a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected the Trump administration's request to hold minors longer.
By separating families, Trump sought to advance a hard-line immigration policy that past administrations had considered, and abandoned as inhumane. Parents were charged with the minor crime of crossing the border illegally and jailed to face court proceedings. Their children were scattered across the country to foster care or shelters. Critics said federal officials did not have a plan to reunite them and failed to keep track of which children belonged to which parents.
Accounts of wailing children and forcible separations sparked a national and international outcry, and warnings from physicians about lasting psychological damage to children and parents.
Former first lady Laura Bush, a Republican whose husband appointed Sabraw, called the separations "immoral." A Honduran man strangled himself in jail after his son was taken away. A group of protesters chased Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky this weekend, shouting insults and saying, "Where are the babies, Mitch?"
Trump stopped the separations even before Sabraw's June 26 order that all children be reunited with their parents. But the government has struggled to return those already separated.
Tuesday's hearing marked the beginning of what Sabraw said he hoped would be a collegial and "good faith" effort to put the families back together.
Advocates have criticized the government for stalling the releases and for forcing parents who arrived with their children to undergo DNA testing and extensive background checks that had not occurred in the past. They note that many who crossed the border illegally are fleeing violence and abuse in their home countries, and want to seek asylum in the United States.
"The forced separation of refugee children from asylum-seeking families is a gaping wound in our country," said Chris Palusky, president and chief executive of Bethany Christian Services, which contracts with the government to house separated and unaccompanied migrant children. "This wound cannot even begin to heal until every child is reunited with their families."
Trump said Tuesday that migrants who want to come to the United States should do so legally. "That's the solution. Don't come to our country illegally," he said. "And remember this: Without borders, you do not have a country."
At the court hearing, government lawyers said they are investigating whether a child who has been in custody for more than a year and was believed to be undocumented is in fact an American citizen.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt called the case "extremely disturbing."
In Guatemala City, the foreign ministers of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador met with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to discuss the separation and reunification of families, among other regional issues.
"Separating boys and girls from their parents is a cruel and inhumane action, and everyone who met here is in agreement about that," Luis Videgaray Caso, the Mexican foreign minister, said at a news conference following the talks. "We've met here in Guatemala City to in the first place make sure this never happens again and secondly, actions to achieve a timely reunification of the children who have been separated."
The Washington Post's Teo Armus, Devlin Barrett, Mark Berman, Dan Lamothe and Steve Thompson in Washington, and Kevin Sieff in Mexico City contributed to this report.