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The Trump Administration announced this morning that it has completed the first phase of reuniting immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. This comes two days after it missed a court-imposed deadline to reunite roughly a hundred children under the age of 5 with their families. Officials now say only 57 were eligible for reunification. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports on the last-minute hustle to bring families together.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: A sudden reunion on Tuesday night between three Central American fathers and their toddlers took Ruben Garcia by surprise. Garcia heads Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, one of many community organizations around the country assisting families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Garcia, the government relaxed a number of requirements, including DNA testing, which have delayed previous reunions.
RUBEN GARCIA: They wanted it done, and they got it done very fast. So that shows me that when they want to move on this, they can.
URIBE: In fact, earlier that same day, a federal judge told government lawyers that lengthy screening procedures were not appropriate with regards to ongoing reunification efforts. Instead, the judge ordered them to move more quickly. That's one reason Roger Andino of Honduras was able to hug his toddler for the first time in five months just hours before the court-imposed deadline expired.
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URIBE: The next morning, Roger Jr. sat in his father's lap, playing with a toy stereo. Before their reunion, Andino was held in a South Texas detention center. He says he threatened suicide to pressure authorities into allowing him regular phone calls with his son.
ROGER ANDINO: (Speaking Spanish).
URIBE: "Seeing my son again was marvelous," he said. "I was overcome with happiness and peace." Now Andino is traveling to meet other relatives in the U.S. He must check in with immigration officers while his asylum case moves through court. Officials are continuing to work rapidly to reunite families. Garcia at Annunciation House said it's a vast improvement over the government's previous efforts.
GARCIA: I'm asking, extend that same spirit of urgency to the 2,500 children that are still separated, and get it done.
URIBE: But on a call with reporters this morning, Chris Meekins with the Health and Human Services Department stressed that when it comes to releasing children, his agency must continue following its strict protocols, including DNA testing.
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CHRIS MEEKINS: Each step of our process is necessary to protect children. Eliminating any one of these steps will endanger children.
URIBE: The deadline to reunite more than 2,000 children ages 5 and up is two weeks from today, and the government is still working to resolve 46 cases of children under age 5. They include kids whose relatives have already been deported. They also include cases where the adult - claiming the child has a criminal record. Government officials say other adults admitted they weren't the parents of the kids they claimed. These are the kids that concern Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who's leading the court challenge against the administration's family separation policy.
LEE GELERNT: The government is supposed to be giving us specific information about each individual they are not going to reunify so we can follow up. And let me be clear. Some of those individuals will have the right to be reunited just not by the deadline.
URIBE: Gelernt said he was happy for the families now reunited but that it didn't excuse the government for missing the July 10 deadline. He said the ACLU is likely to seek penalties against the government at a court hearing scheduled tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.
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