July 24 (UPI) -- A court-imposed deadline to reunite migrant families separated at the border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy looms Thursday.
The federal judge who imposed the deadline held another status of parent-child reunification conference call Tuesday. Since issuing a preliminary injunction halting separations last month, Southern California federal Judge Dana Sabraw has ordered the government to provide regular updates to American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing the separated parents and children.
On Tuesday, Sabraw heard from the government that 1,637 parents are eligible for reunification with their children -- and the majority, 1,112 parents, had been reunified.
After President Donald Trump ordered the end of the separations last month after a national outcry, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said about 2,500 children had been separated at the border. Government attorneys now say the ORR's initial count was too high, as many parents are not eligible for reunification.
Sarah Fabian, senior litigation counsel for the Department of Justice, told Sabraw's court there are no impediments to completing reunification for eligible parents, except for weather-related travel delays.
Sabraw commended the government for its "remarkable achievement" and said he expected reunification for the remaining 525 parents "will be completed on time."
The government plans to complete most of the reunification in the Karnes immigrant detention facility in south Texas. It said the facility is a "removal location," meaning families would likely be reunified there and then deported to their native countries.
Questions remained, however, about a group of 914 parents whom U.S. officials have declared ineligible for reunification. Of those, 127 have waived reunification and opted instead for removal or deportation without their children. Others have criminal histories, meaning the administration cannot comply with guidelines concerning child interests. Authorities will not release children to parents with criminal convictions.
Another 260 children require further evaluation, Fabian said, adding some "were, in fact, unaccompanied alien children." Attorneys also told the court more than half of the ineligible parents had returned to their home countries.
Fabian said 463 parents had been deported or removed but did not know if they were deported without their children.
The court heard 20 parents had been reunited and removed from the United States. But under further questioning, government attorneys could not confirm if they'd been reunited before leaving.
"This is the deeply troubling reality of the case," Sabraw said. "Some of the information is unpleasant" and resulted from a policy with "no reunification or keeping track" of parents or children.
"Things really are a mess on the ground," said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. "We are not being told who's being reunified.
"Parents have no idea what's happening. I think the court is going to be shocked to hear how little people understood."
Gelernt said parents in detention were informed in groups of 50 about their rights and were asked within three minutes to sign papers about "giving away their child." He said he plans to file affidavits from parents.
Gelernt's threatened affidavits drew the ire of government attorneys like Scott Stewart, who said he was "disappointed to learn" about the ACLU's proposed filings.
The government is "about to be blindsided by a raft of affidavits," Stewart said. He characterized them as an attempt to "widen relief" beyond the specific parents eligible for reunification. He also said the government has "significant jurisdictional" issues about the court's involvement in immigration matters.
"We are proud of our efforts," Stewart said about the government's reunification plans. "We acted in good faith and we wanted to try to resolve this. We did what we could."
Sabraw said he would address the government's concerns in court on Friday.