A Southwest Key shelter for immigrant children on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale.EXPAND
A Southwest Key shelter for immigrant children on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale.
Joseph Flaherty

Phoenix Reunions Were Among Only 34 Migrant Children Returned to Parents Tuesday

Only 34 of the 98 remaining undocumented children under age 5 in Health and Human Services’ custody were reunified with family members by the Tuesday, July 10, deadline set by a federal judge. Four families were reunited before the deadline.

Several of those reunifications took place Tuesday in Phoenix, according to the New York Times, whose reporters witnessed the return of some children to their parents.

"In Phoenix, reunions were marked by confusion and heartbreak," the Times reported. Some children didn't even recognize their parents.

According to a statement provided by HHS, 71 children were “likely eligible for reunification,” but only 34 were  reunified Tuesday. The fate of the remaining 37 children remains unclear – parents were either deported, released into the U.S., or need to take a DNA test to verify parentage.

Several obstacles prevented another 27 children from family reunification. According to HHS, eight parents have serious criminal histories, and 10 others are in criminal custody. Five adults weren't the parent of the child they crossed the border with. One parent "faces credible evidence of child abuse." And the location of one parent has not been known for more than a year.

"Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody," an HHS statement said.

Almost 12,000 “unaccompanied alien children” are currently in HHS custody, according to its own estimates. Most of those were already in custody when the government implemented President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since May.

Though a number of children were taken away from parents who entered the United States illegally, some families legally entered the U.S. seeking asylum, and still had their families torn apart.

The exact location of minors in HHS custody is kept private for their personal safety. However, Southwest Key, a nonprofit shelter for migrant children, has seven locations in the metro Phoenix and houses an unverified number of migrant children.

Several unmarked white transport vans were stationed at Southwest Key’s West Campbell Avenue location on Tuesday, but a spokesperson on-site would not confirm if the vans were meant to transport children to their parents.

Attorney Michael Avenetti, who represents adult film star Stormy Daniels, as well as "upwards of 60 families" separated at the border, said there were five children detained in Phoenix.

In a canned statement provided to all media outlets on Tuesday, Southwest Key’s CEO Juan Sánchez said, “Today, Southwest Key is helping reunify separated children with their families. Our staff came in early, made sure every backpack was full and every child got a hug and a goodbye. And, the kids hugged us back. They were excited to be on their way to be with their families. And, we were thrilled for them.”

Southwest Key has received roughly $1.5 billion from the government in the last 10 years and is expected to receive a $458 million grant from the Trump administration for housing detained children. A statement on their website reads, "We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification."

That compassionate care for reunification will be put to the test on July 26, the next deadline set by federal Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the federal injunction requiring the government to reunite families separated at the border.

Sabraw issued the injunction on June 26 and gave the federal government 14 days to reunite children under 5 with their parents. The injunction also required the federal government to reunite minors ages 5 to17 with family members within 30 days.

The Department of Justice requested an extension for the reunification deadlines, but Sabraw upheld the court's decision.

"These are firm deadlines," he said. "Not aspirational goals."

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