By ELLIOT SPAGAT
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal judge, responding to a plan to reunify children separated at the border, said he was having second thoughts about his belief that the Trump administration was acting in good faith to comply with his orders. The Justice Department on Friday filed a plan to reunify more than 2,500 children age 5 and older by a court-imposed deadline of July 26 using “truncated” procedures to verify parentage and perform background checks, which exclude DNA testing and other steps it took to reunify children under 5.
The administration said the abbreviated vetting puts children at significant safety risk but is needed to meet the deadline. Chris Meekins, deputy assistant Health and Human Services secretary for preparedness and response, filed a declaration that he is fully committed to meeting the deadline. However, he does not believe “the placing of children into such situations is consistent with the mission of HHS or my core values.” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw took umbrage at Meekins’ statement, disputing the official’s interpretation of his orders and saying that safe reunification could and will occur by July 26.
“It is clear from Mr. Meekins’s declaration that HHS either does not understand the court’s orders or is acting in defiance of them,” the judge wrote late Friday. “At a minimum, it appears he is attempting to provide cover to defendants for their own conduct in the practice of family separation, and the lack of foresight and infrastructure necessary to remedy the harms caused by that practice.” Sabraw, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said Meekins’ statement calls into question his comments in court hours earlier that the administration was acting in good faith.
Sabraw said in court Friday that the administration had largely complied with orders but, at the same time, he indicated he will be monitoring its actions ahead of the deadline.
The judge said the administration must provide a list of names of parents in immigration custody and their children by Monday and complete background checks for them by Thursday. He scheduled four hearings over the next two weeks for updates, including one on Monday. “The task is laborious, but can be accomplished in the time and manner prescribed,” he wrote in his order.
Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, said the administration proposed its plan “in the interests of transparency and cooperation” after concluding that the abbreviated vetting was necessary to make the deadline. “Within the time the court allows, we will strive to implement the most comprehensive procedures possible to ensure child welfare,” she said. “We look forward to continuing our close work with the court to accomplish the goals we share of safe, expeditious reunification.”