WASHINGTON — Stung by a public outcry, the Trump administration said Thursday it will meet court-ordered deadlines for reuniting families separated at the border, even as the politics of immigration remained at a boil.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that his department is ready to reunite children in its care with their parents, starting Tuesday with those under age 5.
However, Azar warned that entire families may remain in the custody of immigration authorities for extended periods, even those who are claiming asylum. Before the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, migrants seeking asylum under U.S. laws were often granted temporary release as their cases were resolved.
Azar also used a new and much higher number for migrant kids separated from their parents, "under 3,000" as compared with the figure of 2,047 he provided at a Senate hearing last week. Of those, about 100 are under 5 years old.
He said the new number reflected a more thorough look by HHS at its case files, and over a longer time period, to comply with the court order that families be reunited. That order had been issued after his Senate testimony.
Nonetheless, Azar's effort to provide a more accurate accounting only seemed to create more confusion.
HHS has long been charged with caring for unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Usually, the agency places children with a U.S. relative or foster family while their immigration cases are decided. This year, HHS also took on the role of caring for children separated from their parents as a consequence of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy.
Azar said the new number reflects a case-by-case audit of about 11,800 migrant children in its care, over a longer time frame. About 80 percent of those children arrived unaccompanied at the border, and many are teenage boys.
Azar said the audit was done to make sure the agency was in full compliance with a court order issued after he had testified in the Senate, giving the lower number.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego has ordered the youngest children reunited by Tuesday of next week, and the rest before the end this month. A court hearing on the administration's efforts and plans is scheduled for tomorrow.
Azar called the deadlines "extreme" but said HHS will comply after an extensive effort to identify children in its shelters who were separated from their parents, to confirm parentage, and to screen parents for criminal violations or other problems that could result in harm to kids.
"While I know there has been talk of confusion, any confusion is due to a breakdown in our immigration system and court orders. It's not here," Azar said, adding that migrant children are being well cared for in HHS facilities.
Once HHS reunifies the families, they will be in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, Azar said. DHS has already started moving some parents to facilities closer to facilities where their children are being kept.
Azar said his department has more than 230 people working on just trying to match children with their parents. DNA testing is being used to speed up the matches, because it's faster than verifying paper documentation.
Shortly before Azar spoke, President Donald Trump took to Twitter, showing no signs of backing away from "zero tolerance."
Only recently, the president had told Republicans in Congress to stop wasting their time on immigration until after November's elections, but now Trump is insisting that Congress "FIX OUR INSANE IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW!"
He called current immigration laws "insane," saying that "Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now."
The tweets seemed to carry an ominous message for border crossers.
"When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave without our . . . Country being forced to endure a long and costly trial," Trump wrote. "Tell the people "OUT," and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn."
Congress has been unable to advance immigration legislation going back to the George W. Bush years. Republicans are divided among hard-liners and business-oriented moderates who don't see rising immigration as a threat. Democrats are pushing for a path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally, which many Republicans deride as "amnesty."