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10:12 AM Tue, Sept. 18th

US to reunite migrant families as immigration politics boil

Monserrat Padilla, left, puts her arm around Aurora, an undocumented immigrant, as Aurora speaks to several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac to protest the separation of families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and President Donald Trump's immigration policies as part of a rally for Families Belong Together, Saturday, June 30, 2018, in Seattle. (Genna Martin /seattlepi.com via AP)

Monserrat Padilla, left, puts her arm around Aurora, an undocumented immigrant, as Aurora speaks to several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac to protest the separation of families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and President Donald Trump's immigration policies as part of a rally for Families Belong Together, Saturday, June 30, 2018, in Seattle. (Genna Martin /seattlepi.com via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) – Stung by a public outcry, the Trump administration said Thursday it will meet court-ordered deadlines for reuniting families separated at the border, even as the politics of immigration remained at a boil.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that his department is ready to reunite children in its care with their parents, starting next Tuesday with those under age 5.

However, Azar warned that entire families may remain in the custody of immigration authorities for extended periods, even those who are claiming asylum. Before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, migrants seeking asylum under U.S. laws were often granted temporary release as their cases were resolved.

Azar also used a new and much higher number for migrant kids separated from their parents, “under 3,000” as compared with the figure of 2,047 he provided at a Senate hearing last week. Of those, about 100 are under five years old.

He said the new number reflected a more thorough look by HHS at its case files, and over a longer time period, to comply with the court order that families be reunited. That order had been issued after his Senate testimony.

Nonetheless, Azar’s effort to provide a more accurate accounting only seemed to create more confusion.

HHS has long been charged with caring for unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Usually, the agency places children with a U.S. relative or foster family while their immigration cases are decided. This year, HHS also took on the role of caring for children separated from their parents as a consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Azar said the new number reflects a case-by-case audit of about 11,800 migrant children in its care, over a longer time frame. About 80 percent of those children arrived unaccompanied at the border, and many are teenage boys.

Azar said the audit was done to make sure the agency was in full compliance with a court order issued after he had testified in the Senate, giving the lower number.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego has ordered the youngest children reunited by Tuesday of next week, and the rest before the end this month. A court hearing on the administration’s efforts and plans is scheduled for tomorrow.

Azar called the deadlines “extreme” but said HHS will comply after an extensive effort to identify children in its shelters who were separated has been made.