SAN DIEGO – The Trump administration, under court order to determine how many additional families had been separated at the border prior to the nationwide rollout of the controversial zero tolerance policy, has so far identified 1,712 potential cases during an initial review, according to the official leading the effort.
The review – a painstaking evaluation of 47,000 case files – was launched a few weeks ago as the latest phase in the landmark family separation litigation in San Diego federal court.
A previous effort last summer sought to identify all children in government custody as of June 26 who had been separated, and to reunify them with their parents if desired. That process, involving some 2,800 families, has largely been completed.
But the scope of the Trump administration’s family separation practice was not widely known at the time. A federal audit earlier this year revealed authorities had been separating families for far longer than the May 2018 official start of the zero tolerance program, including a pilot project in Texas that began as early as July 2017.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government to account for the additional separations, going back as far as July 1, 2017. The process will be more challenging than the previous effort, because these children have since been released from government shelters – either into the care of parents or sponsors, or because they turned 18.
During a hearing Friday, Cmdr. Jonathan White of U.S. Health and Human Services told the judge that his team had reviewed 13,000 case files so far.
Many of the files the team decided to tackle first already had clear indications of separations, so the large number was not unexpected, White said, according to a transcript of the hearing. The team also reviewed all case files of children under age 12, whether there were initial indications of separation or not.
The files will be reviewed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for confirmation of separation, then will be passed on to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine the status of the parents. The files will return to HHS for further investigation into the whereabouts of the children, including if they were released to a sponsor or parent.
Confirmed cases of separation will be forwarded to the American Civil Liberties Union, which will help locate the parents in case reunification is desired.
White said the team was being overinclusive so no separations are missed. But that will likely result in many files ultimately coming back as false positives, he said.
Sabraw has given the government a six-month deadline to complete the case reviews — a timeline White was optimistic about meeting.
“We started running at this problem,” White told Sabraw of the initial push. His team of case reviewers started working 12-hour days, seven days a week. But he has now allowed them to take a day off each week because their progress has been so good, and because he worries about the mental toll of the work.
The team has some 47,000 files to review, representing children who ended up in government custody from July 1, 2017, to June 25, 2018.
While his team of about 10 people was going through the case files faster than anticipated, White said he is still on track to hire experts to create a statistical model to find children who were likely separated versus children who crossed the border illegally as unaccompanied minors.
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