WASHINGTON — The Trump administration admitted Thursday that the government has separated hundreds more children from their parents after illegal border crossings than had previously been revealed and that none of the families has yet been reunited.
Roughly 100 of the children are younger than 5, Alex M. Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, whose agency has custody of the children, told reporters on a conference call. The total number of children taken from their parents may be as high as nearly 3,000, he said.
Azar sharply objected to court orders that have directed the government to reunite the families, but have limited how long officials can hold children in immigrant detention. He warned that families may remain in the custody of immigration authorities for long periods, including those claiming asylum.
“As broken as our immigration system is, we still want to treat people as well as humanly possible going through this difficult process,” he told reporters, according to The Associated Press.
A federal judge in San Diego has given the government until Tuesday to reunite children younger than 5 with their parents. The judge gave the administration until roughly the end of this month to reunite all the families.
The families mostly have raised claims for legal asylum in the United States. President Donald Trump has ordered that they be kept locked up while their asylum claims wend their way through the courts, a process that often can take months or years.
The new numbers are the most specific to come from the agency, as the administration has struggled to come up with a plan to reunite families. Azar has said the only way parents can quickly be reunited with their children is to drop their claims for asylum in the United States and agree to be deported.
The separations stem from the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that the administration began fully implementing in early May. Under the policy, officials said they would hold all adults who cross the border illegally and charge them with misdemeanors. Because children can’t be placed in adult jails, the misdemeanor charges became grounds for splitting up the families.
Amid fierce backlash, Trump said on June 20 that the administration would end the practice. Instead, the administration now wants to hold families indefinitely in immigration detention. That could conflict with a 1997 legal case known as the Flores settlement, which has been interpreted as a limiting to 20 days the time a child can be forced to spend in immigration detention.
Last week, administration lawyers told a federal judge in Los Angeles that she should interpret the Flores settlement as allowing the indefinite detention of families while their asylum claims are processed.
On Thursday, Azar criticized what he called conflicting court rulings, including the latest ordering his agency to reunite families, saying it would further make it difficult to confirm a child’s parents through its full vetting process.
Repeating the rhetoric of immigration hard-liners, he thrust blame on parents making dangerous journeys north.
Civil rights groups and immigration lawyers called the administration’s admission of the higher numbers of detained children deeply troubling.
“Since the Trump administration began separating families systematically at the border, the American people have been kept in the dark,” said Efren C. Olivares, racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Advocates and lawyers have been forced to fight tooth and nail to reach their clients and confirm their whereabouts.”
The number of families apprehended at the border has only slightly dipped since the zero tolerance policy was announced, from nearly 9,700 in April to more than 9,400 in June, according to statistics released Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Former immigration and HHS officials said federal agencies are likely scrambling to connect parents and children across agencies that are strictly compartmentalized and have no obligation to follow up with one another after they have handed people over.
“It’s almost like the game of hot potato — they’re your responsibility,” said Alonzo Pena, retired Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director. “I don’t see that there are a lot of polices on the care and custody of children that cuts across all these agencies, Border Patrol, ICE, HHS.”
Maria Cancian, a former senior advisor and deputy assistant secretary at Health and Human Services, said the typical process the department follows to reunite children with parents who have been released from detention isn’t challenging.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement “has reunited 5,000 children in a given month,” she said. But “this is a very different situation, not part of ORR’s mandate because it is related more to immigration enforcement.”