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Government Lawyers Say Some Migrant Children Are Ineligible For Reunification


Lawyers from the federal government and the ACLU met once again today in a San Diego courtroom to debate the government's attempts to reunify the families it's separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. The government says it has fully complied with a court-ordered deadline to reunite children under the age of 5 with their parents. The judge in this case and the ACLU, which sued the government, did not agree with that. Joining us to discuss all of this is NPR's John Burnett. Hey, John.


CHANG: So what happened in court today?

BURNETT: Well, Judge Dana Sabraw - he really - he praised the reunification process. And it was all very mannerly from what I heard. He said the government - there's a substantial compliance. There's been good faith demonstrated. There are some bumps, but parties are working through the issues in a successful way given the enormity of the undertaking.

The ACLU understandably was not so sanguine. They asked the government to create a fund to pay for mental health counseling for the kids. They want the government to reimburse any families who paid for air travel or DNA testing for reunifications. The government denies it made anybody pay for their own cheek swabs. And it wants the government to reunify the kids with the 12 parents who've already been deported. And the government's adamant that it won't do that.

CHANG: Can you recap what happened this week to these young children under the age of 5 who were supposed to be reunited with their parents? What happened?

BURNETT: Well, the ACLU says the government missed the Tuesday deadline to reunite all of these kids. There were about a hundred of them. And of course the government claims it was successful in meeting the deadline in reuniting the 58 children who were eligible for reuniting. And then it held off rejoining parents with the 46 kids who were ineligible.

CHANG: OK, so it all comes down to the definition of who is, quote, "eligible" and who is not. What's the dispute about that definition?

BURNETT: Well, HHS declared all these people ineligible. He said - excuse me. They said 11 adults had criminal histories such as child cruelty or human smuggling. Seven were determined not to be the parent. One had a fake birth certificate. One is being treated with a communicable disease. Twelve had been deported. Nine are in U.S. Marshals custody. And it went on and on.

But I have to tell you, Ailsa, this long list of ineligible parents perfectly fits the government's narratives that things just are not what they appear to be. We shouldn't trust these adults who enter the country illegally with children in tow.

CHANG: So according to the ACLU and the judge, how well were these reunifications coordinated?

BURNETT: Well, as I said, the judge, you know, praised them - the government's substantial compliance. But the ACLU complains there have been some real snafus. They mentioned one mother was stranded with her infant at a bus stop until midnight. One mother waited all day to see her child but then was sent back to detention because of a computer foul-up. But we certainly have heard of successful reunions around the country where the mom or the dad were overjoyed to have their little ones back in their arms.

CHANG: All right, so the government faces another deadline in two weeks to reunify more than 2,000 older kids. What's going to be happening with that? Is it going to be on time, you think?

BURNETT: Well, we'll see.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BURNETT: A Justice Department lawyer said today they'd provide a list - actually, later today - of all the parents of the 2,000-plus kids who are ages 5 to 17. I think we'll see a repeat of the process we witnessed this past week. The government will pull out all the parents who they say are ineligible. The lawyer said - the government's lawyer said they've learned from the hitches over the past week, and they'll have a better plan going forward. For instance, they're going to centralize the reunion locations and not have so many scattered around the country. But the ACLU attorney urged the judge, hold the government's feet to the fire. Don't just let them show up in two weeks with another long list of reasons why they couldn't meet the deadline.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Ailsa.


As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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