The U.S. government told a federal court that it would take “extraordinary effort” to reunite migrant children in sponsor homes with their parents, the Associated Press reported on Saturday. The filing follows a report by the inspector general of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, which found that the Trump administration had separated thousands more children from their families than the 2,737 listed in court documents. According to the AP, HHS now claims that removing children from their homes may further emotionally traumatize them:
Jonathan White, who leads the Health and Human Services Department’s efforts to reunite migrant children with their parents, said removing children from ‘sponsor’ homes to rejoin their parents ‘would present grave child welfare concerns.’ He said the government should focus on reuniting children currently in its custody, not those who have already been released to sponsor homes.
The government added that it has no way of tracking the children taken from their parents. A federal court ordered the Trump administration to end its family separation policy last year, after a successful lawsuit filed by the ACLU; on its website, the civil liberties organization called Friday’s filing a “a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents, and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them.”
As the AP notes, most children taken from their parents at the border have been placed in the homes of relatives, but some have been placed with foster families who bear no relation to their families of origin. If the government does stymie efforts to reunite children with their parents, placements in sponsor homes may also amount to de facto adoptions. There’s some evidence that migrant children who have been taken from their parents at the border or who cross the border alone may be adopted out rather than reunited with their families. A previous AP investigation, published in October 2018, “identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents.” These systemic cracks predate the Trump administration but they arguably contribute to a mounting human-rights crisis as Trump officials tighten immigration restrictions and separate more families at the border. In August 2018, NBC News reported that some parents say they’ve been coerced into waiving their right to reunification with their children.
Government officials now appear prepared to compound the human-rights violations they’ve already committed by absolving themselves of their legal and moral responsibilities to reunite the very families they separated. Attorneys for the government and the ACLU will return to court on February 21.