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San Diego Federal Judge Holds Hearing Over Family Separation

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal judge in San Diego held a hearing today with lawyers from the Justice Department and from the ACLU. At issue is the reunification of migrant families separated under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. In a filing yesterday, the government said it had successfully reunited nearly 2,000 children with their parents. But there are still hundreds of kids who have not been reunited, and that's what the two sides are still fighting over. Joining us now is reporter John Sepulvado of member station KQED. He's been following the developments. Hey there, John.

JOHN SEPULVADO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So the government submitted a plan yesterday for reuniting that final batch of children who are still separated from their families. What is in that plan?

SEPULVADO: Well, the government was actually supposed to submit a plan, as you were just saying, but instead the government essentially said that the ACLU should, quote, "use their considerable resources and their network of law firms, NGOs, volunteers and others to establish contact with these hundreds of deported parents." So, Audie, if I was talking to my friends about it, I would be - I would say, basically the government said, hey, ACLU, you don't like this, you fix it.

But I'm not talking to my friends. And the government is not talking to their friends. And the lawyers of the government are talking to a federal judge. And Judge Sabraw really seemed disappointed. Sabraw said he expected a blueprint from the government, a full plan. They did not provide that yesterday. He said that it's 100 percent the government's responsibility to fix this problem. And, Audie, there was one phrase that really stood out more than any other. Sabraw, for the first time since I've been paying attention, said the reality is that for every parent not located there will be the possibility of a permanently orphaned child. And to fix that possibility is 100 percent of the government's responsibility.

CORNISH: Over 400 children have parents who have already been deported to Central America. Does the plan address the challenges of reuniting families across borders?

SEPULVADO: Again, there's really no plan. So right now what the judge is saying to the government is essentially we want you to pick a point person, somebody who can be responsible for this undertaking. The government said that they might need up to two people to do it. And the ACLU said that they want to do everything that they can to help, but again that this isn't their issue as far as watching it. Now - and one of the things that really needs to be understood - and I was just recently in Guatemala - according to what the court heard today, 95 percent of these deported parents are either from Guatemala or Honduras. And it is very difficult to get to some of these areas. So it's really important that the information is accurate. It's really important that everyone knows where they're going. And right now that doesn't seem to be the case.

CORNISH: What did the ACLU have to say? They're the plaintiffs in this case.

SEPULVADO: Well, after the government's filing yesterday, Lee Gelernt, who's the lead lawyer, was really taken aback. Here he is.

LEE GELERNT: That is remarkable given that the government created this crisis, separated these children, deported the parents. It's the government's burden to find them. We've said we will help because we want the families reunited. And we'll do everything we can to help. We certainly didn't expect the government to say, you all find, and we'll help with the margins.

SEPULVADO: And, you know, that message not only resonated with Judge Sabraw today in San Diego, but it really was echoed by him. Judge Sabraw made it very clear - now, this is a very polite, diplomatic judge. And he made it really clear to the government that they need to get their act together and find a way to reunify these parents who have been deported.

CORNISH: That's John Sepulvado of member station KQED. John, thank you.

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

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