The Trump administration has told a federal judge that it has reunited more than 1,000 parents with their children after the families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it has lost track of hundreds more parents.
The data, submitted in a court hearing on Tuesday, suggests that, by the government's accounting, it will largely meet a second deadline imposed by the judge to bring eligible immigrant families back together.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw set a deadline of this Thursday late last month, giving the government 30 days to reunite more than 2,500 children, ages 5 to 17, with their parents. He set an earlier deadline of July 10 for children under 5.
In the older group, the administration confirmed that 1,012 adults have been reunited with their children so far, and another 600 are set to meet over the next two days, pending transportation and weather-related delays.
But lawyers for the government also revealed that as many as 463 parents may have been deported or have voluntarily left the U.S. without their children. Justice Department attorneys were unable to offer any details about the circumstances under which they were removed, where they might reside and why their children may have been left behind.
The government is still trying to determine whether reunification is required or even possible for another 260 children. They may have been released to other family members or are in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to Sarah Fabian, an attorney for the Department of Justice.
Fabian reported 127 parents had waived their reunification rights explaining that parents often base their decision "on the desire to have the child released to another relative."
Sabraw commended the government for its swift efforts calling it a "remarkable achievement." But he also ordered the government to release more information about the hundreds of parents who were removed from the U.S. without their children and those who waived their right to reunification.
The judge described the government's failure to keep track of split families a "deeply troubling reality" of a policy that separated people "without forethought."
On the courthouse steps after the packed hearing, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt said the judge is right.
"The government says maybe some of them voluntarily agreed," he said. "But until we speak to them we have no idea what happened with these parents and why they left their children behind. We are hearing and we suspect that many of them will have been misled or coerced into leaving without their children."
James Chavez, a federal defender in San Diego, says one father he represented was so desperate to be reunited with his 5-year-old daughter, that he returned to Guatemala without her — because officials told him going home would be the fastest way to get his daughter back.
"They needed somebody who was related to the daughter to be back in Guatemala, to send proof of that relationship," he said, "to send proof of her nationality and to send a letter saying that they wanted the daughter to be returned.
Chavez says the government had all those documents within a couple weeks. Months after being separated, the father is in Guatemala and his daughter is still in New York.
"My client is now thousands of miles away from his daughter because he was led to believe that was the fastest way to be reunited with his daughter," Chavez said.
The ACLU's Gelernt says it's critical that the government release more information parents who have not yet been located as well as families who have been reunited but are facing deportation.
That information will enable advocates to help parents meet with attorneys and understand their rights, Gelernt says. "It ... makes it hard for us to help find parents," he said, "if we don't have information about who they can't find."
The judge is expected to rule later this week of whether to uphold a temporary restraining order that prohibits the government from immediately deporting reunited families.