Can the Trump Administration Solve Its Own Disaster?

The deadline has passed to reunite the youngest migrant children with their families, but thousands of other children remain alone in the system.

Loren Elliott / Reuters

This week marked an inflection point in the chaos that began after the United States first started forcibly removing migrant children from their families several months ago: Tuesday was the court-ordered deadline for the government to reunite the youngest of these children, ages 5 and younger, with their parents.

The deadline was both harder and easier to meet than the one that looms at the end of the month—when a federal judge has ruled that older children (ages 5 and up) must be returned to their parents. Harder because many of these tender-age children are not yet verbal, and determining who their parents are (or even where they came from) can be difficult. Easier because of the numbers involved: There are just more than 100 migrant children affected by the July 10 deadline. There are well over 2,000 children who will need to be reunited by July 26—roughly two weeks away.

So far, the reunifications tell a complicated story. As of Tuesday afternoon, only four out of the 102 youngest children had been returned to their parents. In a hearing that day in federal court, the presiding judge, Dana Sabraw, estimated that 75 of these children were eligible for reunification, but it was clear that circumstances had conspired to delay the reunions. DNA test results confirming parentage had been delayed; some parents were still in detention and unable to claim their children; still others had already been deported and would therefore, in Sabraw’s words, “take some time.”

Still, the mood among the advocates and attorneys representing these children was cautiously optimistic. The initial July 10 deadline had to be extended, but the hope (and expectation) was that most of the very youngest children would be returned to their families.

I spoke with Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead attorney representing the plaintiffs in their case against the government, who explained that his optimism was due in large part to the courts. “The critical turning point was when the judge made clear that he wanted the government to provide a list,” said Gelernt, referring to a list of the hundred-odd children who had been separated from their parents at the border.

While there was initial concern that the judge might simply order an injunction on the family-separation policy and then wait for the government to eventually reunite the children—or not—Sabraw has instead taken an active role in ensuring that the government is held accountable and is using all of the resources at its disposal to reunite the families. “The judge ordered the government to give us the names of children and parents to use our resources to track everyone down,” Gelernt told me. Multiple NGOs—including advocacy and legal groups—spoke to me about their “detective work” tracking down the parents of separated children; the court’s mandated transparency about specifically which children need help has assisted these efforts.

“We’ve had status conferences last Friday, yesterday, and today. He has issued very quick, short deadlines and moved it along,” Gelernt said. “The judge doesn’t want to be kept in the dark—and doesn’t want us to be kept in the dark.”

Gelernt was upbeat: It was clear that he felt the courts had given the children’s cases some desperately needed momentum and focus, but the absurdity of the situation was inescapable. Here was the United States government, tangled in a disaster of its own making and seemingly incapable of solving it alone—but also apparently forgoing assistance until it was court-mandated. Yes, it was a very good thing that the judge, Sabraw, had opted to keep everyone out of the dark; it would have been much better if the U.S. government hadn’t held its hand over the switch after turning off the lights.

Mostly though, the government’s mendacity and incapacity in this moment is characteristic of its posture throughout this saga. On June 26, just two weeks ago, Alex Azar—the secretary of health and human services—sat before the Senate Finance Committee and waved away concern that his agency might be somehow unable to reunite children with their parents: “I could, at the stroke of keystrokes … with just basic keystrokes, within seconds, could find any child within our care for any parent,” he said. Azar’s frustration at the suggestion otherwise was evident.

Yet the intervening weeks have proven that confidence misplaced. According to The New York Times:

The family separations, part of an aggressive effort by the Trump administration to deter illegal immigration, have produced a chaotic scramble as officials now face political and judicial pressure to reunite families.

Records linking children to their parents have disappeared, and in some cases have been destroyed, according to two officials of the Department of Homeland Security, leaving the authorities struggling to identify connections between family members.

Just five days ago, Azar’s department “sent out a plea to federal public health workers for help with an exhaustive manual search of records.”

What happened to those basic keystrokes? Azar, in subsequent days, has offered, “It takes time to reorient the effort to reconcile the different data sets the government has to respond to a new order to reunify minors with their parents.”

Public contrition may have been too much to expect from this preternaturally defensive White House, but the administration has gone a step further than that—blaming the judicial branch and its deadlines, rather than accepting the fact that this entire ordeal is, in fact, self-created.“HHS is executing on our mission even with the constraints handed down by the courts,” Azar told reporters last week, characterizing the judge’s time frame for reunification as “extreme.”

This sense of injury has been accompanied by an eye-blinkingly audacious assessment of the administration’s efforts. On Monday, officials told the press that the agencies had “worked tirelessly” to reunite children, and that the results so far results were “highly encouraging.” Another email celebrated the fact that, thanks to agency efforts, “the mission will be accomplished,” and added, “Everyone should feel satisfied that we are doing our part to reunify the children with their families.”

“Satisfaction” seems a questionable conclusion for efforts that were forced upon this administration—and that have thus far remained inadequate as they pertain to the end goal: giving all the children back to their parents. At present count, 12 of the youngest migrant children have parents who have already been deported. “The government hasn’t even tried to find those parents yet,” Gelernt told me.

Twelve is not an extraordinary number — but the number of parents who have already been deported is almost sure to rise exponentially when federal agencies begin to grapple with the 2,000-plus children it must reunite with families in the next two weeks. Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, which advocates on behalf of migrant children, explained that parents who have already left the country pose a particular challenge.

“It’s extremely difficult,” she said. “Once a parent is back home, first we have to connect with the parent through an NGO or a consulate. Trying to find where they are is extremely difficult: They fear for their lives and are in even greater danger once they return, so they tend to go underground. Plus there are tech and communications problems down there. And accessing a system in the U.S. to find out where the child is—we have very little information to do that. This is extraordinarily difficult to do.”

Kelly Albinak Kribs, a staff attorney for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, was concerned about the magnitude of work at hand. “Just the sheer numbers,” she told me. “I can’t wrap my head around how that plays out with 2,000-plus children age 5 and up. It’s hard to imagine.”

Gelernt was resolved about the task at hand. “What’s hopefully come out of this is a blueprint for the second, larger group,” he told me. “We need a spreadsheet to help with the process, and the government needs to let the court know early in the process if it’s hitting glitches—so the court can help resolve them.”

“I don’t think it will be easy,” he added. “And I’m not saying there won’t be slippage—but at least it’s better now with a blueprint.”

The Trump administration has, by design and disorganization, traumatized thousands of children and their parents fleeing desperate situations, and dealt with the ensuing crisis with a combination of turpitude, incompetence, and foolhardiness. But by luck—and court order—the very same government is being given a chance at redemption. The administration’s willingness to set aside the things that created the crisis will be precisely what determines the outcome of the crisis itself.