Stung by a public outcry, the Trump administration said Thursday it will meet court-ordered deadlines for reuniting families separated at the border, even using DNA testing to help speed up the process.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that his department is ready to reunite children in its care with their parents, starting next 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.
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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 five 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. He explained that children who become separated from their parents during their journey to the U.S., and are not separated by border agents, do not qualify for reunification.
"It's important to remember that information from children can at times be unreliable," Azar said, adding that HHS is reviewing datasets from the Department of Homeland Security to verify the claims.
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 as a backup to speed up matches if problems arise with paper documentation, said Jonathan White of the HHS Administration for Children and Families. It's done by swabbing the inside of the cheek of parent and child and sending the results to a contractor lab for comparison.
Although White said DNA will only be used for reuniting families and genetic fingerprints will remain confidential, advocates for migrant families were concerned about intrusiveness.
"This is potentially extremely harmful in aggregating a database of DNA that people are somehow directed to provide in order to simply see their children," said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas nonprofit.
HHS said in a statement provided to NBC that both the DNA swabs and results would be destroyed "after verification is complete." HHS did not name the contractor completing the testing, saying that it has "not consulted with the contractor to get that permission. HHS also did not specify if it would verify with the contractor that the tests and results had been destroyed.
Meanwhile, the number of apprehensions and inadmissables at the Southwest border declined from 51,905 in May to 42,565 in June, according to the latest report from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. That's a decline of 18 percent.
While the number of apprehensions and inadmissables increased by about 1,700 between the same months in 2017, the CBP also saw declines from May to June between 2013 and 2016.
Shortly before Azar spoke Thursday, 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 hardliners 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."