By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – Lawyers for the U.S. government and families separated by border officials after they entered the United States from Mexico said 37 more children have been freed from federal custody in the last week, as both sides work out means to enable children to seek asylum.
In a Thursday court filing, the lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego to let them try to work out disputed issues overnight, ahead of a scheduled Friday afternoon hearing.
Sabraw oversees the process for reuniting 2,551 children ages 5 to 17 with their parents. He has emphasized the need to move with “all due speed” in reuniting families and addressing asylum issues, while avoiding premature deportations.
The families had been separated under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigrants.
Trump ended that policy on June 20 after widespread global criticism.
According to Thursday’s filing, 505 children ages 5 to 17 remain separated and under care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, down from 541 a week earlier.
Another 23 under age 5 also remained in federal care, one fewer than a week earlier.
More than 2,100 children have been discharged from federal custody, mainly through reunifications with their parents.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued over the forced separations, and others have been reaching out to hundreds of parents who were removed from the country, to determine their wishes for children still in U.S. custody.
According to Thursday’s filing, of the 412 parents in this category in early August, 333 with working phone numbers have been called, 231 have been spoken to, and 183 have indicated their wishes.
Through such outreach, 10 children have been reunified with their parents in their original countries, the filing said.
Some of the 79 parents with unidentified or nonworking phone numbers are being tracked down through birth certificates and travel to remote villages, the filing said.
The ACLU said it was still investigating whether some removed parents were coerced or misled by the U.S. government into dropping their asylum claims.
Last week, Sabraw indefinitely extended a freeze on family deportations, giving lawyers more time to address asylum issues.
Sabraw was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Toni Reinhold)