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Why the government missed the deadline to reunite immigrant families

Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Criminal background checks, DNA tests, deportations, illnesses and cumbersome communication between three federal government agencies and even more sub-agencies have delayed the reunification of immigrant families that were separated at the border.

The Trump administration was supposed to reunite 102 children under age 5 with their parents by Tuesday, according to a deadline imposed by a federal judge in California. It still has not said how many were actually reunited, but figures released Tuesday indicated only four children had been reunited.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who originally set the deadline for reuniting families, reduced the number to 63 Tuesday after testimony by the government on why some families could not be reunited. He also called for a more "streamlined approach" to the process. The federal government will have to testify to Sabraw Thursday on how many children of the 63 they were able to reunite.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is handling the reunification of families along with the Department of Homeland Security and, to a lesser extent, the Department of Justice, sent an email to lawmakers Tuesday afternoon detailing the process. Some steps will have to be changed, due to Sabraw's ruling.

Reunification is a four-step process once the alleged parent's location is identified, according to the email obtained by McClatchy.

It begins with HHS assessing all alleged parents both for criminal history and for actual relation to the child. All are put through a criminal background check, which eight parents failed, according to the email. Charges for those eight include child cruelty, child smuggling, narcotics crimes, robbery convictions and a warrant for murder. One other parent faces "credible evidence" of child abuse.

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Those who pass the criminal background check are submitted for a DNA test, which HHS says has determined five people were not the true parents of the child.

"Some adults claimed to be parents but when approached about doing a DNA test to verify parentage admitted they were not parents," the email reads.

Sabraw told the federal government Tuesday that from now on they could only use DNA tests when they could not verify parentage in other ways, such as birth certificates.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, which has been challenging the federal government in court, said Sabraw's decision means the health and human services agency can only use DNA tests if they have reason to believe the person is not the parent, rather than in every case. The ruling also means HHS can conduct only one criminal background check, based on fingerprints taken from the parent when they were originally taken into custody. Gelernt said he believes the government has been conducting multiple background checks, furthering delays.

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