The federal judge in California who ordered the US government to reunite separated immigrant families is now turning his attention toward what he calls a "root cause" of the problem he's spent months trying to help solve.
When US District Judge Dana Sabraw first ordered reunifications of thousands of parents and children in June, he slammed the government for not having an effective system for tracking children after officials had separated them from their parents.
"The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property," Sabraw wrote at the time.
Pointing Friday to a recent government watchdog report on family separations that further detailed bad record-keeping and poor communication among different agencies, Sabraw suggested in court that he might eventually consider ordering the government to create a better database system. For now, Sabraw said he wants attorneys on both sides to continue discussing the matter as part of their regular negotiations in the case and reporting to the court.
"As the inspector general points out, it is a big issue. ... I don't want to let this issue go," Sabraw said. "I want to keep it in the forefront on the status reports and urge the government to continue to make progress."
Why does this matter still, months into this case, if court-ordered reunifications are nearly complete?
Because officials have continued separating families over issues of parental fitness or doubts in parentage. And they've floated the idea of separating more families.
Government attorneys said in a court filing Thursday that an Office of Refugee Resettlement database now includes a check box that indicates whether a child has been separated from their family, and other government agencies have access to that system to enter related case information. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys said they want more information about what the government is doing now before they weigh in on next steps.
Scott Stewart, an attorney for the Justice Department, said in court Friday that officials have "made good progress" in improving communication and urged the judge to hear further arguments before making any significant ruling.
"We're dealing with this. We hear the court. We're addressing the issue," he said. "We've made progress and we can keep the court apprised."
Friday's status conference was the latest development in the ACLU's case over immigrant family separations. In June, Sabraw ordered the government to reunite most of the families it had divided, comprising parents and children who had been separated as a result of the government's now-reversed "zero tolerance" policy at the border and some separations that had occurred before that policy was put in place.
In addition to discussing the government's data system, several other matters came up in Friday's hearing. Among them:
• Concerns that children are remaining in custody for too long: Advocates for immigrant families that were separated by the US government had said Thursday that they're concerned about a group of children who've remained in custody for months even though their parents had designated sponsors to take them in. In these cases, parents who'd been deported without their kids told officials they didn't want their children to be repatriated, instead designating sponsors to care for them in the United States. But a number of children remain in custody months later and haven't been released to sponsors, ACLU attorneys said. Stewart said in court Friday that he's looking into specific cases identified by the ACLU. But he said the process of placing children with sponsors is lengthy by design to protect child welfare. Sponsors are required to fill out and submit paperwork and then must be vetted and approved. "These are things that just take time," he said.
• Concerns there may be more separated families the government should reunite: Government attorneys argue the judge's ruling and a later settlement over asylum claims shouldn't apply to the cases of children who were released from US custody before June 26 -- the day Sabraw ruled in the case. Advocates argue rulings in the case should apply to these children as well. Attorneys don't go into details about how many people might be in this situation, but the implication is that there may be more families not included in the government's tally that the ACLU believes should be reunified. Sabraw said he'll have attorneys brief him further on the matter.