The mess of mi­grant fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tions

It is the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­com­pe­tence, not a court’s dead­line, that’s ‘ex­treme.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ED­I­TO­RI­ALS

IN LATE June, Alex Azar, sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, as­sured mi­grant par­ents whose chil­dren had been snatched away by U.S. bor­der of­fi­cials that there was “no rea­son” they could not find their tod­dlers, tween­ers and teenagers. Then it turned out that Mr. Azar’s depart­ment, which is in charge of the chil­dren’s place­ments and wel­fare, doesn’t have a firm idea of how many of those chil­dren it has un­der its purview. Or where all their par­ents are (or even whether they re­main in cus­tody). Or how par­ents and chil­dren might find each other, or be re­joined.

On Thurs­day Mr. Azar was back with more rosy as­sur­ances, this time that the gov­ern­ment would meet a court-im­posed dead­line to re­unite those chil­dren with their par­ents — by Tues­day in the case of 100 or so kids un­der the age of 5, and by July 26 for older mi­nors. A day later it turned out the gov­ern­ment was beg­ging the court for more time.

Mr. Azar blamed the ju­di­ciary for set­ting what he called an “ex­treme” dead­line to re­unify fam­i­lies. Yet as de­tails emerged of the chaotic scram­ble un­der­taken by Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to re­unify fam­i­lies, it is ap­par­ent that what is re­ally “ex­treme” is the gov­ern­ment’s bungling in the han­dling of sep­a­rated fam­i­lies — a clas­sic ex­am­ple of rad­i­cal es­trange­ment be­tween the bu­reau­cracy’s left and right hands.

A jaw-drop­ping re­port in the New York Times de­tailed how of­fi­cials at U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion deleted records that would have en­abled of­fi­cials to con­nect par­ents with the chil­dren that had been re­moved from them. No ap­par­ent mal­ice im­pelled their de­ci­sion; rather, it was an act of ad­min­is­tra­tive con­ve­nience, or in­com­pe­tence, that led them to be­lieve that, since par­ents and chil­dren were sep­a­rated, they should be as­signed sep­a­rate case file num­bers — with noth­ing to con­nect them.

The re­sult is Third World-style gov­ern­ment dys­func­tion that com­bines the orig­i­nal sin of an un­speak­ably cruel pol­icy with the fol­low-on in­ep­ti­tude of un­co­or­di­nated agencies un­able to fore­see the pre­dictable con­se­quences of their de­ci­sions — in this case, the in­evitabil­ity that chil­dren and par­ents, once sun­dered, would need at some point to be re­con­nected.

Now, faced with the dead­line for re­unit­ing par­ents and chil­dren set June 26 by Judge Dana Sabraw of U.S. Dis­trict Court in San Diego, hun­dreds of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees were set to work through the week­end por­ing over records to fix what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion broke by its sud­den and heed­less procla­ma­tion in May of “zero tol­er­ance” for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, and the fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions that im­me­di­ately fol­lowed.

Mr. Azar, fol­low­ing the White House’s lead, in­sisted any “con­fu­sion” was the fault of the courts and a “bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.” In fact, the con­fu­sion was en­tirely of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own mak­ing. The sec­re­tary ex­pressed con­cern in the event of­fi­cials lacked time to vet the adults to whom it would turn over chil­dren. Yet there was no such con­cern about the chil­dren’s wel­fare, nor the last­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal harm they would suf­fer, when the gov­ern­ment cal­lously tore them away from their par­ents.

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