The chief executive of the nation’s largest shelters for migrant children said Tuesday he fears a lack of urgency by the US government could mean it will take months to reunite thousands of immigrant children with their parents.
Juan Sanchez of the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs said the government has no process in place to speed the return of more than 2,000 children separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s recent "zero-tolerance" crackdown on illegal immigration.
"It could take days," Sanchez said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. "Or it could take a month, two months, six or even nine. I just don’t know."
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The communications staff at the US Department of Health and Human Services didn’t reply to a request for information about how long the process would take.
The comments come as seventeen US states launched legal action against Donald Trump’s administration over its child migrant separation policy, claiming it is “cruel and unlawful”.
New York, California, Washington, Iowa and Massachusetts were among those states whose Democratic attorney generals brought the case. It is the first legal challenge over the policy from states.
During Congressional testimony on Tuesday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar declined to be pinned down on how long it would take to reunite separated families. "We have to expeditiously get children out of our care," he said.
Sanchez said Southwest Key is "ready today" to do what it takes to reunite children with parents who have been arrested for trying to cross the US-Mexico border. But he said his group is limited in what it can do because many parents’ cases will likely have to make their way through the legal system before the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement can give the go-ahead to put families back together.
Newly planned family detention space could allow recently separated children to be housed with their parents, Sanchez said, adding that would not be optimal, but would be better than keeping them apart.
"If it was me," he said. "I’d say I want the child with me."
Sanchez said he opposed the family-separation policy, but for the sake of the children he felt his organisation needed to take them in.
"Somebody has to take care of them," he said.