WASHINGTON — Lawyers for the Trump administration on Friday asked a federal judge for more time to reunite immigrant children with their parents, the latest signal that the government is struggling to bring families back together after separating thousands as they crossed the US-Mexico border earlier this year.
US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego had ordered the government to return children under 5 years old to their parents by Tuesday, but federal lawyers said they could meet that deadline for only about half of the 101 children in that age group.
Officials say they have deployed hundreds of government employees and opened a command center usually reserved for natural disasters to match parents and children. But the massive effort is complicated by difficulty in locating some parents and, in other cases, uncertainty about the parents’ identities. Some parents have been deported and others have been freed in the United States, apparently without a system to monitor everyone’s whereabouts.
The judge ordered the government to deliver a list of the children’s names to the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, by Saturday and said he would decide Monday whether to grant an extension.
‘‘And then we can have a more intelligent conversation,’’ Sabraw said Friday at a status hearing on his order, adding that ‘‘then the court can determine whether it makes sense to relax the deadlines as far as reunification. But I would need more information.’’
Friday’s hearing captured the frustrations over the Trump administration’s inability to get a handle on the number of parents separated from their children in recent months after implementation of President Trump’s ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policy at the border. It also foreshadowed the troubles officials could face as they try, over the next three weeks, to locate the parents of roughly 3,000 children ages 5 to 18. The deadline is July 26.
Sabraw, appointed in 2003 by president George W. Bush, late last month ordered federal officials to reunite all families within 30 days, and children under 5 within two weeks. Families were initially apprehended together, and then scattered to criminal jails after being charged with illegally crossing the border, or to civil immigration agencies to seek asylum or face deportation.
In court records, the agencies said they were not prepared to track the separated parents and children, which delayed their efforts to reunite them.
A Justice Department lawyer told the judge Friday that reunions should happen swiftly for approximately half of the 101 children under age 5 who are being held in shelters overseen by Health and Human Services.
‘‘There are then some groups for whom the reunification process is more difficult,’’ lawyer Sarah Fabian told the judge. ‘‘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.’’
She said the government had matched 86 parents to 83 children. Sixteen children had not been matched, and it remained unclear if they crossed with their parents, she said. About 46 parents are in immigration custody, 19 were deported, and 19 were released. Another nine are in the custody of US Marshals.
Two parents had criminal records that made them ineligible to regain custody of their kids, she said, noting that these figures do not cover all parents and that efforts to match families were ongoing.
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the ACLU who brought the class-action lawsuit on behalf of parents separated from their children even before the administration’s zero-tolerance policy took effect in May, told Sabraw that the government’s lack of record keeping was ‘‘startling.’’
‘‘It just doesn’t make sense,’’ he said. ‘‘You’ve taken a child from a parent. They need to give the child back.’’
He urged the judge to require the government to stick to the deadlines and said thousands of lawyers are willing to help match parents with their children, which is why he asked the Justice Department for a list.
A parallel lawsuit, brought last month by the Democratic attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, includes hundreds of pages of sworn declarations from migrant parents and their advocates detailing alleged experiences that mothers, fathers, and children have endured while trying to seek asylum in the United States.
In one account, a 14-month-old baby fleeing El Salvador last year was separated from his father at a port of entry in Southern California. His mother, Olivia Caceres, sought asylum weeks later and — after enduring one bureaucratic hurdle after another, including a DNA test — was reunited with her son nearly three months after he was taken away. He was ‘‘full of dirt and lice,’’ Caceres said in her declaration. ‘‘It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.’’