On Thursday morning, two days after a court-imposed deadline, the Trump administration announced it had completed the first phase of reuniting immigrant families separated by its zero tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a joint statement by the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, government officials said they worked tirelessly to reunite 57 children under age five with their families.
This represents more than half of 100 or so children included in a lawsuit brought against the administration by the American Civil Liberties Union. Another 46 cases, including kids whose parents were already deported, have yet to be resolved.
Ruben Garcia is the director of the Annunciation House, a migrant shelter in El Paso. It is one among many community organizations nationwide assisting with reunification efforts. Garcia witnessed the government's last-minute hustle up close.
Hours before the deadline expired on Tuesday, he got a call from Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking whether he could receive three Central American fathers who had just been reunited with their toddlers.
"They wanted it done and they got it done very fast," Garcia said. "That shows me that when they want to move on this, they can."
In these cases, Garcia said authorities didn't bother placing ankle bracelets on fathers before their release and waived DNA testing, which had delayed previous reunification efforts.
Earlier that same day, a federal judge in San Diego told government lawyers that lengthy screening procedures weren't appropriate with regard to most of the ongoing reunification efforts. Instead, the judge ordered the government 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. According to Andino, the pair had requested asylum legally at a port of entry in February and were soon were separated— something U.S. Customs and Border Protection has said rarely happens. Andino was then held at a south Texas detention center, where he said he threatened suicide to pressure authorities into allowing him regular phone calls with his son.
On Wednesday, Andino held his 3-year-old in his lap while he talked to reporters at a shelter run by Annunciation House.
"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. Meanwhile, officials continue to work rapidly to reunite other families.
Garcia of the Annunciation House said it's a vast improvement from the government's previous efforts.
"I'm asking [that the government] extend that same spirit of urgency to the 2,500 children that are still separated and get it done," he said.
But on a call with reporters earlier on Thursday, Chris Meekins with the Health and Human Services Department stressed that, when it comes to releasing children, his agency must continue to follow its strict protocols, including DNA testing.
"Each step of our process is necessary to protect children, eliminating any one of these steps will endanger children," Meekins said. An HHS spokesman later clarified in an email that while the agency strongly believes in its vetting procedures, it will truncate the process in order to speed up reunifications of immigrant children ages 5 to 17.
The deadline to reunite those more than 2,000 kids is two weeks from Thursday. The government is still working to resolve 46 cases of kids younger than five. They include those whose relatives have already been deported. They also include cases where the adult claiming the child has a criminal record. Government officials said other adults admitted they weren't the parents of the kids they claimed. One allegedly had a false birth certificate. Another reportedly has a "communicable disease."
These are the kids that continue to concern Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who's leading the court challenge against the administration's family separation policy.
"The government is supposed to be giving us specific information about each individual they are not going to reunify so we can follow up," he said. "Let me be clear, some of those individuals will have the right to be reunited, just not by the deadline."
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 on Friday.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump has closed out his first day in the United Kingdom with a thud. There was some pomp and circumstance and a dinner at the birthplace of Winston Churchill. And then the British tabloid The Sun published an explosive interview with the U.S. president, one that's going to make talks with the British prime minister, Theresa May, a little awkward.
We begin our coverage in Washington with NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ailsa.
CHANG: So the headline on The Sun reads "May Has Wrecked Brexit... U.S. Deal Is Off." OK, what is that about?
HORSLEY: Well, the president is talking here about the way Prime Minister May has gone about negotiating Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. And he's basically suggesting that she's pursuing a course that's different than what he would. He would prefer a harder Brexit, a more robust separation of the U.K. economy from the continental economy. Here's what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn't agree with - she didn't listen to me.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What did you say?
TRUMP: She didn't listen. No, I told her how to do it. That will be up to her to say. But I told her how to do it. She wanted to go a different route.
HORSLEY: And the president went on to say this could jeopardize chances for a U.S.-U.K. bilateral trade deal. That's something that Theresa May is very interested in striking. Remember; she was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump in the White House...
HORSLEY: ...After the Brexit vote because if Britain's not going to be part of the European economy, they very much want to have trade ties with the U.S. Trump is saying here that might not happen if you keep one foot in Europe.
CHANG: Now, the president also defended Theresa May's rival Boris Johnson. He took aim at London's Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan. Tell us about those remarks.
HORSLEY: Right. He said Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister, which is a little bit awkward since Johnson just left May's Cabinet...
HORSLEY: ...In a squabble over how this Brexit is playing out. And of course the president has a long-running feud with Sadiq Khan. You might remember they had words about - just about a year ago after a terrorist attack in London when just hours after that attack and with incomplete information Trump took to Twitter criticizing Khan. J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, I think responded to that by saying, if we need an ignorant blowhard, we'll call.
HORSLEY: This is exactly the reason that the president is being met with, you know, protest balloons in the city of London. But he then broadened this out to sort of a nativist attack on immigration and the effect it's having throughout Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: I think what's happened to Europe is a shame. I think the immigration - allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe. And unless you act very quickly, it's never going to be what it was. And I don't mean that in a positive way.
HORSLEY: Now, this of course is not terribly different than the argument that the president makes about illegal immigration in this country.
CHANG: Do we know anything about how this interview came to be? Was it a long time in planning? Do we have any information about it?
HORSLEY: Well, it doesn't appear to have been an ambush interview. It seems to be, you know, something where the president sat down and spoke at some length with the interviewer from The Sun. It's not unusual when a president is visiting another country to do an interview to sort of lay the groundwork for the diplomatic talks that are going to go on.
HORSLEY: It is unusual, though, to have that interview sort of laced with hand grenades that are sure to create some awkward scenes tomorrow.
CHANG: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you very much, Scott.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.