US judge suspends deportations of reunited immigrant families

An intake of illegal border crossers by US Border Patrol agents at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SAN DIEGO (REUTERS) - A US judge temporarily barred the US government on Monday (July 16) from the rapid deportation of immigrant parents reunited with their children, while a court considers the impact on children's rights to seek asylum.

The government is working to meet a court order to reunite around 2,550 children who were separated by US immigration officials from their parents at the US-Mexican border.

The families had been separated as part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration by the administration of President Donald Trump, sparking an international outcry. The president ordered the practice stopped on June 20.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in court papers on Monday that, once reunited, immigrant parents who face deportation should have a week to decide if they want to leave their child in the United States to pursue asylum separately.

"A one-week stay is a reasonable and appropriate remedy to ensure that the unimaginable trauma these families have suffered does not turn even worse because parents made an uninformed decision about the fate of their child," the rights group wrote.

Judge Dana Sabraw of the US District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego asked the government to respond and set a July 24 date for the next hearing. In the meantime, he halted rapid deportations.

At Monday's hearing, the judge pressed back on a suggestion by a government attorney that quick deportations aided reunifications by creating more room for families in detention.

"The idea this would slow or stop reunifications, that's not an option," said Sabraw. "If space is an issue, the government will make space."

Sabraw last month set a July 26 deadline for the government to reunite children who were separated from their parents at the border.

The majority have been matched with a parent, but the government is still trying to find a parent for 71 children in its care, Jonathan White, from the US Department of Health and Human Services, told the court.

All the children under the age of five have been reunited, the government said.

"I have every confidence you're the right person to do this," the judge told White.

However, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU, said after the hearing that he found it "extremely troubling that there are 71 children whose parents they haven't been able to identify, much less reunify."

Many of the immigrants separated from their children were seeking asylum after fleeing violence and crime in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Children were sent to multiple care facilities across the country, and their parents were incarcerated in immigration detention centers or federal prisons - in keeping with the government's "zero tolerance" policy under which all adults crossing the border illegally would face prosecution.

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