"We would say that DNA is the last resort."(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that almost 3,000 children were in federal custody as a result of family separations meant to deter illegal immigration and that about 100 of them were under age 5.
Judge Dana Sabraw had issued an injunction on June 26 requiring the government to reunite detained migrant children under the age of five within 14 days and those over that age within 30 days. By July 10, children under 5 must be reunited with their parents.
About 11,800 minors are now in United States custody after crossing over from Mexico, Azar said.
In the new court filing, the government is also seeking to limit the number of families eligible for reunification. Officials there say they know the locations of all the children - some were sent hundreds of miles away to shelters around the country operated by nonprofits that care for them until a parent or other sponsor is identified.
"In some cases if we're not, for example, aware of where the parent is, I can't commit to saying that reunification will be able to occur by the deadline".
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law".
"We want to ensure that we can reunite children who have been separated from their families as expeditiously as possible", wrote Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, and Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.
Questions have arisen in recent days if the department can met the rapidly approaching deadlines that a judge ruled last week applies to the executive order Trump signed to reunite the families.
Azar also confirmed on Thursday that the government is conducting DNA testing as part of its family reunification effort. But the Trump administration didn't maintain ― and, in some cases, reportedly destroyed ― clear records of which children were separated from their parents.
This isn't a flawless equation; we don't know whether the children released from HHS custody were reunited with parents - only that they're no longer in one of the agency's shelters.
The court order also includes a deadline to release children aged between five and 17 by 26 July.
"My opinion is that some relaxing of the Court's deadlines is needed to allow HHS, on a case-by-case basis, to complete processes that HHS determines are necessary to make informed class membership determinations and to protect the welfare of the children presently in ORR custody", Jonathan White, a senior official at the federal Health and Human Services Department, said in the filing.
"It sounds easy", Azar said, but noted that his department has 11,800 children in their care and has records on each one.
Advocates for immigrants have blasted the Trump administration, suggesting officials have created bureaucratic obstacles to delay the reunions.
"The safety and security is paramount and that it is not uncommon for children to be trafficked or smuggled by those claiming to be parents".
"It's deplorable they are using the guise of reuniting children to collect even more sensitive data about very young children", said Jennifer Falcon of RAICES, a Texas-based rights group representing migrant families.
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