July 27, 2018 / 9:29 PM / 25 days ago

U.S. says data on separated families not readily available - court filings

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government said in court filings on Thursday that it lacked the technical capability to quickly provide states with information about children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigrants.

Undocumented immigrant families walk from a bus depot to a respite center after being released from detention in McAllen, Texas, July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

As part of a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle challenging Trump’s immigration policies, more than a dozen states have asked the federal government for lists of children separated from their parents, the location of each child, information on the separated parents and the government’s plans to reunite them.

The government said in Friday’s filings that attempts to gather data to comply with states’ requests would divert it from efforts to reunite families.

Jonathan White of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a filing on Thursday that the government would need to conduct a manual review to identify all separated children in each of the plaintiff states.

There was no automated way to create a list of separated children by state or by facility, he said.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the computer system used to track immigrant children under HHS supervision has little ability to interact with the separate database used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track the children’s parents.

Users reported that the HHS system could only handle a limited number of users at once without crashing, lost saved data, had poor searchability and required significant manual work for even small updates.

In a separate filing on Thursday, David Jennings, an acting assistant director at ICE, said much of the information states requested about separated parents was not easily retrievable or searchable, especially for parents already released from ICE custody.

Immigration attorneys have said the difficulty retrieving information can delay reunification.

One attorney who declined to be named told Reuters on Friday that she represented a Honduran mother whose reunification with her child was “significantly delayed” because border patrol failed to link them in their database.

The mother crossed the border with the child’s original birth certificate and vaccination records, said the attorney, but these were taken from her after she was detained. The two were reunited in July after two months apart.

On Thursday, the government said it had reunited 1,442 children with their parents, while hundreds of children are still separated from their families.

Rights activists said on Friday that they were struggling to find immigrant families to confirm the U.S. government had met a July 26 court deadline to reunite “eligible” parents and children who had been separated.

Some children arrived at remote immigration detention centres this week only to spend the night in a car in the parking lot awaiting the parent’s eventual release, immigration advocates and lawyers said.

Other children were sent to detention centres to meet their parents but were returned “in tears” to government shelters because of scheduling problems, Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission told reporters on Thursday.

Reporting by Reade Levinson in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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