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An ACLU Lawyer On Family Reunification Order


A San Diego judge set a deadline. The judge says federal authorities who separated thousands of children from their parents have 30 days to set it right. They must return children to their parents within that time, and kids under 5 must be returned sooner. The judge made that ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt argued the case before the judge, and he's on the line.

Good morning, sir.

LEE GELERNT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is this the result you wanted?

GELERNT: Absolutely. This is a complete victory - all children united within 30 days, children under 5 years old reunited even sooner - within 14 days. All parents must be able to speak with their children within 10 days - no parents deported without their children unless they knowingly waive that right. And going forward, the judge laid down standards for when separations are permissible.

INSKEEP: Was it necessary to get this ruling, given that the Trump administration has said they are already trying to reunite children with their parents?

GELERNT: Absolutely. What the administration has said publicly is - they sort of made vague promises about reunification, but in court, they have said they have no specific plan. And, in fact, it's even worse than that because what they've said is they won't reunite detained parents until removal. Well, that could be months from now. And so the judge heard that and I think wasn't satisfied and felt like a hard deadline was necessary.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just see if you believe that the federal government has been given a possible task because in the discussion about reuniting families, there's been a lot of fear that there may be cases where this is impossible, where the child is very small, where it's not clear who the parents were or even where the parents are anymore if they've been deported. Do you believe it is possible for all of the more than 2,000 remaining kids to be placed back with their families?

GELERNT: Yes. I do believe it's possible. The overarching point, I think, is that when the United States government prioritizes something and they make it urgent, they can get it done. They just have enormous resources. And I think the problem up till now is they've been intentionally separating these children and not wanting to get them back together. If they now prioritize this, the - which the judge said they have to do, they can get it done. They can also rely on the enormous nonprofit network that's ready to help them and all of the volunteers. There should be no reason the United States government can't get these 2,000 kids back with their parents within 30 days.

INSKEEP: I want to ask a broader question about what you feel the administration is up to or ought to be up to on the border now. We have heard from Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, who took the lead in proclaiming this policy that included separating parents from their children. He has been very unhappy to be so criticized for it, and here's part of what he has said.


JEFF SESSIONS: A country without borders is not a country. I don't know why that's so hard for some people to understand.

INSKEEP: He insists he's simply trying to enforce the law at the border and suggests, as others in the administration have, that critics and opponents don't really want border enforcement at all. Do you not really want border enforcement at all?

GELERNT: We are not pushing open borders at all. There can be enforcement, but it has to be within the law and humane. They do not need to separate little children from their parents.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what happens with somebody who's probably crossing the border today and being apprehended somewhere on the Southwestern border. We now know that the administration is no longer going to separate parents from children. The administration would like to keep them together but still detain them. However, there is a court ruling that is described as saying that parents and children cannot be kept in detention for more than 20 days. What would you suggest the administration should do that is within the law?

GELERNT: Right. So I think you're referring to the Flores settlement.


GELERNT: That's a myth that the children have to be sent away at the 19th day. If a parent is with a child, especially a young child, and decides that it's better off - it's better to have the child with her for longer than 20 days until she gets out, that's absolutely permissible under the settlement. She can keep the child with her. The government absolutely knows that and is using that as a way to undo all the protections for children.

INSKEEP: I'm completely shocked by this statement that you're making because the federal government has said this is the whole basis for separating parents and children in the first place, because we can only hold them together for 20 days. You're saying they could have been holding families together all along, in spite of all the news reports to the contrary, in spite of all the government statements to the contrary.

GELERNT: They absolutely don't have to release the child at 19 days. They should be releasing the families. If the family is not a flight risk or a danger, they ought to be releasing the families. But there's no rigid requirement that the - over the mother's objection, the child be released at 19 days, and I think the administration knows that.

INSKEEP: Lee Gelernt is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which won a judgment from a federal judge last night that within 30 days, all children separated from their parents must be reunited. Thanks very much.

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