A federal judge ruled on Friday that thousands of additional migrant families that were separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy should be part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit, and may force the administration to reunite them as well.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw has already ordered the administration to reunite more than 2,800 migrant children who were separated from their parents as of June 26, 2018, the date he issued his order. Sabraw wrote in Friday’s order that he set that date because there was no reason to believe the government had been systematically separating families en masse before then.
But in recent months, media reports and an inspector general report revealed that the administration had an undisclosed family separation pilot program in place starting in July of 2017, which may have led to thousands of additional separations. So on Friday, he ruled that families separated during those 11 months are part of the class-action lawsuit. He scheduled a hearing on March 27 to decide whether the government will be required to identify all of the additional families, or to reunite them as well.
“The hallmark of a civilized society is measured by how it treats its people and those within its borders,” Sabraw wrote. “That Defendants may have to change course and undertake additional effort to address these issues does not render modification of the class definition unfair; it only serves to underscore the unquestionable importance of the effort and why it is necessary (and worthwhile).”
The new order came in response to a request from the ACLU after it learned of the additional separations. The civil rights group, which is leading the family separation lawsuit, said it was imperative that all separated families at least be accounted for, and possibly reunited in cases where the parent was deported or remains in government custody in the U.S.
Lee Gelernt, who has led the lawsuit for the ACLU, called Friday’s ruling a “critical step” toward ensuring that all families affected by “zero tolerance” are counted.
“The court made clear that potentially thousands of children’s lives are at stake and that the Trump administration cannot simply ignore the devastation it has caused,” he said.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Trump administration has been fighting back against the ACLU request. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which cares for migrant minors who arrive in the U.S. alone or are separated from their parents, said its case managers would be forced to manually review the case files of all 47,000 minors who passed through the department’s shelters over the previous year.
Jallyn Sualog, deputy director for children’s programs at the department, wrote in a court filing that such a review would require 100 analysts working eight hours a day for up to 471 consecutive days.
“Even if performing the analysis Plaintiffs seek were within the realm of the possible, it would substantially imperil ORR’s ability to perform its core functions without significant increases in appropriations from Congress, and a rapid, dramatic expansion of the ORR data team,” Sualog wrote.
Department of Justice attorney Scott Stewart said during a recent court hearing that the administration had gone “above and beyond” to respond to the court’s initial order to reunite the original 2,800 separated families, and that it did so without challenging every decision Sabraw has made in the past eight months. But Stewart warned the judge that if he approved the ACLU request, he would “blow the case into some other galaxy” and Justice would be forced to change course.
“I’m just not sure that we can keep going that way,” Stewart said.
Sabraw made clear that his main intention was to “bring to light” all the wrongs committed by the government. And since new information had come to light, it was perfectly reasonable — and legal — for him to expand the scope of the lawsuit.
“It’s important to recognize that we’re talking about human beings,” Sabraw said. “Every person needs to be accounted for.”
Image: Honduran Eilyn Carbajal hugs her then-8-year-old son Nahun Eduardo Puerto Pineda (right) after they were reunited at the Cayuga Center in New York on Aug. 3, 2018.