July 6 (UPI) -- The Justice Department asked a federal judge for more time to conduct the necessary steps to reunite children immigration officials separated from their parents.
The judge ordered the Health and Human Services Department to reunite children younger than 5 by Tuesday and children between 5 and 17 by July 26. But federal officials said the process involving DNA testing and vetting to ensure the safety of the child means they won't be able to meet the deadline.
"The government does not wish to unnecessarily delay reunification," the government said in a court document filed Thursday. "At the same time, however, the government has a strong interest in ensuring that any release of a child from government custody occurs in a manner that ensures the safety of the child."
In addition to checking for a biological connection between parent and child, HHS officials were vetting parents to make sure they were not "unfit" or present a danger to their child.
Earlier in the day, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said the department was using DNA tests to try to quickly comply with the court deadline and reunited the children -- nearly 3,000 of them.
Azar described the court order as "extreme" and said the department won't be able to use its usual methods for parental verification -- like checking birth certificates -- to meet the deadlines because those processes take longer.
In mid-June, the Department of Homeland Security said it separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents in April and May after the Department of Justice announced a "zero-tolerance" policy to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in early May.
The new policy faced backlash from immigrant advocates and lawmakers from the Democratic and Republican parties, and on June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the practice of separating families. The order, though, didn't address how or when already-separated families would be reunited.
The government questioned Thursday whether the court order meant agencies had to reunite children with parents already deported by the deadline and those separated prior to the start of the new "zero-tolerance" policy.
"The government respectfully requests clarification from the court as to whether the process for confirming parentage implemented by HHS is consistent with the court's understanding of its mandate, and seeks clarification that in cases where parentage cannot be confirmed quickly, HHS will not be in violation of the court's order if reunification occurs outside of the timelines provided by the court," the Justice Department said, offering to propose an alternative timeline for reunification.