The Trump administration said it completed the first round of reunifications Thursday of families separated at the border, but it will be up to a federal judge to decide whether government officials moved fast enough to comply with his order.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw imposed a series of deadlines for the administration to reunite nearly 3,000 children separated from their parents, mostly under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement policy. The first group, children under 5 years old, were supposed to be reunited with their parents by Tuesday.
Sabraw made clear during a court hearing Tuesday that his deadlines were firm, and he raised the possibility of punishment for the government if those children were not reunited by the deadline "or within the immediate proximity" of it.
Two government agencies issued statements that they completed the final reunification at 7 a.m. Thursday. The Department of Health and Human Services, which has custody of the minors, and the Department of Homeland Security, which has custody of most of the adults, said in joint statements that they reunited 57 children with their parents.
Sabraw will have to decide whether that number is enough. The government was holding 103 children under 5 years old who were separated from their parents, but Department of Justice lawyers have been negotiating with the judge to carve out exceptions.
Sabraw agreed that not all 103 children could be reunited and that certain cases are too complicated to complete within his deadlines.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who led a lawsuit against the administration's family separations, said he could "not be more happy" for the reunited families. He said the ACLU will recommend punishment against the government for being two days late.
"Make no mistake about it: The government missed the deadline even for these 57 children," Gelernt said.
According to the administration, some of the cases that were not completed include:
• 11 parents who were found to have a "serious criminal history," including charges or convictions of child cruelty, kidnapping and murder, making them a danger to their children.
• 12 parents who had already been deported. Sabraw agreed to give the government more time to identify those parents and create a system to reunify them with their children.
• 11 adults who are in federal and state custody on non-immigration, criminal charges.
• Seven adults who were determined not to be a parent. The government has been conducting DNA tests of all alleged families to ensure that children are not released to human smugglers.
• One parent whose identity remains unknown. The Department of Justice said the child, who has been in custody for more than a year, may be a U.S. citizen.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a joint statement that the 57 reunifications show the government has done everything it can to comply with Sabraw's order.
Thursday, Chris Meekins, a senior HHS official, said any delay in reunifying children was necessary to ensure they weren't being handed over to human smugglers posing as parents, or parents who pose a danger.
"Elimination of any one of these steps increases the margin of error that children could be harmed," he said.
Meekins defended the agency's decision to conduct DNA tests on all children before reunifying them with their parents. That process led to delays since tests generally take a week, but Meekins said the mere act of swabbing the cheeks of two alleged parents to collect their DNA got them to admit they were not the child's parents.
Sabraw is scheduled to hold a court hearing Friday morning in San Diego to decide whether the government did enough. If he finds the government missed his deadlines, he could hold government officials in contempt of court and has a wide variety of punishments available to him.