Hundreds of families separated at the US-Mexico border in limbo as US officials struggle to meet a court-set deadline for family reunification that expired on Thursday.

Perla Silva holds her daughter Aileen at a news conference in Brooklyn for her parents Concepcion and Margarito Silva, who were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 4.
Perla Silva holds her daughter Aileen at a news conference in Brooklyn for her parents Concepcion and Margarito Silva, who were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 4. (AFP)

The Trump administration said on Thursday that more than 1,800 children separated at the US-Mexico border have been reunited with parents and sponsors but hundreds remain apart, signaling a potentially long wait for anguished families.

A federal judge in California had ordered that all eligible migrant families be brought back together by 6:00 pm (2200 GMT) and officials said in a court filing that 1,442 children aged five and older had been reunited with their parents.

"The reunification plan outlined to the court... is proceeding, and is expected to result in the reunification of all class members found eligible for reunification at this time by the court's July 26, 2018 deadline," the government said. 

A further 378 children had already been released under other "appropriate circumstances," the filing added, but more than 700 children remain in custody.

The government said the deadline had been met however, because those families were ineligible, either because family ties have not been confirmed, or the parent has a criminal record, a communicable disease or cannot be found.

The controversial separations began in May, when migrants entering illegally were detained en masse, and their children taken to detention centres and shelters.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit to reunite the families, said earlier on Thursday that the government was manipulating the figures to give a false impression of success.  

"These parents and children have lost valuable time together that can never be replaced. We're thrilled for the families who are finally reunited, but many more remain separated," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement.

"The Trump administration is trying to sweep them under the rug by unilaterally picking and choosing who is eligible for reunification. We will continue to hold the government accountable and get these families back together."

TRT World spoke with Anisha Singh of Center for American Progress for more.

Unification marked by chaos 

Lawyer Efren Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents some parents, said the US treatment of migrant families has been marked by "chaos and cruelty," and that officials' rush to reunite parents and children lacks organisation.

"In South Texas, we've witnessed haphazard reunifications in detention center parking lots at all hours of the day and night," he said.

Maria Odom, vice president of legal services for Kids in Need of Defense, said two children who were represented by the group were sent from New York to Texas to be reunited with their mother.

When they arrived, they learned their mother had already been deported, Odom told reporters during a conference call.

Odom said her group cannot find the children, aged 9 and 14.

It was an example, she said, "of how impossible it is to track these children once they are placed in the black hole of reunification."

As the deadline neared, dozens of families with children gathered for a sit-in on Capitol Hill, while Democratic lawmakers blasted President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" border policy as un-American.

TRT World's Nicole Johnston has more from New York.

Outrage in US and abroad

The controversial separations began in earnest in May, when migrants entering illegally were detained en masse, and their children taken to detention centers and shelters as a result.

The policy triggered outrage in the United States and abroad, especially after the release of audio of small children in shelters crying for their parents, many of whom fled turmoil and gang violence in Central America.

The pressure led to the Republican president demanding an end to the separations six weeks later. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego then ordered the reunifications, hundreds of which have already occurred, and she set Thursday as the deadline.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Tuesday the government intended to "reunify all families that are suitable."

But the pace has been slow; children and parents are being housed in different parts of the country, and many adults have been deported.

The government has identified 2,551 children ages five to 17 potentially covered by the order, and said 1,634 families are eligible for reunification.

Officials said that as of Monday 879 parents had been reunited with their children.

TRT World's Nicole Johnston reports from New York.

'Nobody chooses to be separated' 

The remaining 917 are considered "ineligible cases" – meaning children cannot be reunited because family ties have not been confirmed, or the parent has a criminal record, a communicable disease or cannot be found.

Of that number, government data indicates that more than 460 parents may already have been deported, some of them voluntarily – enormously complicating any possible reunion.

"The other 917 – including the 463 who may not be in the US now – will not be reunited before the deadline, and it's up to Judge Sabraw to decide whether that is OK," said Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental research group.

Finding parents in Mexico or Central America will be a long, painstaking task, said Stephen Kang, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the administration to demand separated families be brought back together.

Democratic lawmakers who recently visited detention facilities near the border accuse the administration of continuing to separate families, and they dispute the government's characterization that parents were voluntarily leaving their children.

"Nobody chooses to be separated, unlike what this administration is saying," Senator Catherine Cortez Masto said.

USA engaged in 'kidnapping and child abuse'

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky aimed fierce criticism at the Trump administration, saying heads should roll.

"I believe that the United States of America is engaged in kidnapping and child abuse, and that someone – someones – must be held accountable for these crimes," Schakowsky told reporters.

Last month Judge Sabraw ordered the government to return children under the age of five to their parents by July 10 and those between five and 17 by July 26.

The government missed the first deadline. It deemed 45 children ineligible for return because their parents were not fit or able to take them.

As of Tuesday, HHS had in its custody 11,500 children classified as unaccompanied alien children, mainly minors who entered the United States without an adult.

But the number also includes children who crossed over with parents, were separated from them and then reclassified as UACs when they were sent to shelters.

Protests in Washington 

Protesters in Washington, meanwhile, call on the Trump administration to meet a court-imposed deadline.

"We are calling on Congress to ensure that this administration does not continue the policy of zero tolerance," said Pastor Sharon Stanley-Rea, with Disciples of Christ.

"That he (the president) hears, that the president knows that we have zero tolerance for his zero tolerance and that we are praying instead for unity of families."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies