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Government Asks For Extension To Family Reunification Deadline


The federal government is facing numerous court-ordered deadlines to reunify families separated by the zero-tolerance policy at the border. Yesterday, a lawyer from the Justice Department asked for more time. So far, the judge has not been inclined to change his original ruling. Children under the age of 5 in government custody are supposed to be reunited with their families by Tuesday of next week, and all separated families are to be reunited by July 26. Joining us to talk about this hearing and what's going on with children separated from parents is John Sepulvado of member station KQED. He's speaking with us from the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Good morning, John.


WERTHEIMER: So this all unfolded yesterday. Where do things stand right now?

SEPULVADO: Well, right now the government has until 5 p.m. today, West Coast time, to produce a list of 101 children they say are under the age of 5. About half of these children - there has been some type of contact between the parents according to the government. Another 19 of these parents have been deported. So that means that they are in their home countries or in some other country while their children are being held by the U.S. government. Then the parties are going to look at this list and determine whether the government should indeed have more time to reunify.

WERTHEIMER: And so far, the judge has not agreed, I gather. Presumably, the families were separated when they were apprehended along the border. Why are they having difficulty finding these parents and putting the kids back together with the parents?

SEPULVADO: Because in many ways, this has been a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare for almost everyone involved. The agencies aren't equipped to do this. Even agencies like the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which you would think handles immigration regularly - well, they were saying that, you know, a lot of how they're holding these kids - it was really based on emergency response models. Then on top of that, these agencies - many of them still don't talk to each other about who is detaining who and who knows about who. So there's a lot of bureaucratic snafus in the system. It's too large, and it wasn't equipped to deal with 3,000 kids in their custody.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what about that group of parents who are no longer in the country - parents who've been deported?

SEPULVADO: We don't know what's going to happen to them. And, in fact, KQED has been following one man who was sent back to Guatemala. His daughter - as of this morning, as best we can tell - is somewhere in New York state, separated. Now, she's not one of these under-5-year-olds. But what we're finding is that these parents - there's no way for them to even be able to work the system from within the system, let alone when they go to a country. On top of that, the U.S. government is saying that before they turn these kids and before they reunite these kids, they need to do home checks, the way a social worker would, you know, to make sure that a family member was suitable to host a foster child, for example. Well, that's almost impossible just to begin with, and then when you add in the fact that these 19 folks are in other countries, it just makes it insurmountable.

WERTHEIMER: So what happens next?

SEPULVADO: As I told you, there's going to be this list that's released today at 5, and then on Monday morning, everyone's going to get together and see if they can reunify some of these families quickly. And if not, why not? It appears that the judge is willing to give the government more time on two conditions - if they don't appeal and if they continue to operate, as the judge calls it, in good faith.

WERTHEIMER: John Sepulvado of member station KQED, thank you very much for doing this.

SEPULVADO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John's from Southern California. He attended Journalism School at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. John's reporting has earned four Edward R. Murrow awards for investigations, and he shared in a Peabody for CNN's Gulf Coast Oil-Spill Coverage. He has also won numerous other national and regional awards for his investigative and multimedia coverage.