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Feds scramble to work out details of order on separated children

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies scrambled Thursday to sort out the logistical and legal complications behind President Donald Trump’s executive order that abruptly reversed his administration’s policy of separating immigrant families detained at the U.S. border.

Trump’s order, signed Wednesday afternoon, called on the federal government to stop the administration’s controversial practice of splitting minors from their parents when caught together trying to enter the country illegally. The order instructs border patrol officials to house families together as they await the outcome of immigration court proceedings.

But the hastily written document also spurred questions about how long families could legally be detained together and how the federal government would go about reuniting more than 2,000 children who have already been separated since the “zero-tolerance” policy was rolled out in mid-April.

The Department of Justice petitioned a federal court judge in California for permission to modify a 1997 federal court settlement that restricts the number of days migrant children can be held in detention facilities to 20 days. Justice Department officials argued the existing “Flores agreement” limits the administration’s ability to hold detained families together for an extended period as their cases wind through the clogged immigration court system.

“These changes are justified by several material changes in circumstances — chief among them the ongoing and worsening influx of families unlawfully entering the United States at the southwest border,” Justice Department officials wrote in their request.

Immigration rights groups criticized the request, saying it would lead to long-term detention of families as the Trump administration continues to enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy that prosecutes all those found entering the country illegally.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon issued a notice to Congress indicating it was exploring its capacity to house up to 20,000 immigrant minors across four U.S. military bases starting in July, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The housing request came from the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been tasked with overseeing the placement of the immigrant minors.

Amid mounting questions about the fate of those children already separated from their parents, HHS officials issued a statement saying the agency had “taken immediate steps to implement” the president’s executive order, but did not respond to follow-up questions about the pace and process for returning the children to their families. Several immigration attorneys and social service agencies have complained about the difficulty of tracking down children who have been placed in facilities throughout the country far from the southern border.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday his administration now estimates there are 700 immigrant children at New York care agencies — double from what he said earlier in the week. He said the number is inexact because foster care agencies are bound by a federal gag order.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for re-election, said the Trump administration is refusing to give him information on the hundreds of immigrant children that are being kept in New York foster care agencies after being separated from their parents.

In a conference call with reporters, the governor said he has called and written the federal Human and Health Services secretary demanding information on the children housed in New York so the state can provide health and mental health services. He said the state will cover the costs of the services, but the federal government is refusing to respond.

— With Yancey Roy

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