By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government must rapidly reunite 63 children under the age of five who were separated by immigration officials after crossing into the United States from Mexico, or face penalties, a judge said on Tuesday.
Judge Dana Sabraw in U.S. District Court in San Diego told government attorneys he would not extend deadlines he set two weeks ago for the Trump administration to reunite the children under five with their parents by Tuesday and 2,000 other children by July 26.
"These are firm deadlines. They are not aspirational goals," Sabraw said.
The government had asked Sabraw to extend the deadlines because it needed time to test DNA to confirm family relationships, run background checks, find parents who were released from custody and review parental fitness.
"Our process may not be as quick as some would like, but there is no question that it is protecting children," said Chris Meekins, an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the children's care.
More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents after U.S. President Donald Trump's administration began a "zero tolerance" policy in early May, seeking to prosecute all adults who crossed the border illegally. While parents are held in jail to await trial by a judge, children are moved into accommodation managed by an HHS agency.
Trump stopped separating families last month following public outrage and court challenges.
Around the country on Tuesday, social workers, lawyers and immigration advocates waited for information about the fate of children in their care. Some received welcome news.
Foster care placement provider Bethany Christian Services, which operates in Michigan and Maryland, said the seven children under five in its care had been reunited or had travel arrangements for reunification.
The judge asked the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit that led to his June 26 order, to file papers on Thursday suggesting remedies if the government had not reunited the 63 children by Tuesday "or within immediate proximity of today."
"The court has a range of options from significant fines to other types of relief," said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.
One legal expert said fines amount to a "slap on the wrist" since the government would be paying itself. But a finding of contempt of court would be embarrassing and might lead to compliance.
"Nobody likes to be held in contempt of court," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration and asylum law at Cornell University.
ACLU court filings have said the government is asking for needless provisions for reuniting families that would not happen if the families had not been separated in the first place.
Sabraw's order included exceptions that might threaten the safety of the child. As a result, the number of children eligible to be reunited has shifted in recent days from as many as 102 as the government has discovered some people were not parents as they claimed or had criminal records.
Many of the immigrants are fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with diplomats from those countries in Guatemala on Tuesday to discuss U.S. immigration policies.
Some lawyers representing the children, who are in foster systems across the United States, said the government was not telling them what would happen to their young clients.
The Legal Aid Society in New York said it is representing at least two children under five who meet the judge's criteria for reunification on Tuesday.
One boy, from El Salvador, was to be released to his mother, according to attorney Beth Krause of Legal Aid's Immigrant Youth Project.
"I have no details about where, when, under what conditions," she wrote in an email on Tuesday morning. A Honduran boy would remain with a foster family while the father remained in custody, although Krause said it was not clear to her why.
Trump, who took his hardline policy on immigration to the White House from the 2016 election campaign, was dismissive of reporters' questions about the missed deadline.
"Tell people not to come to our country illegally," he said. "That's the solution."
Some of the separated families arrived at U.S. ports of entry seeking asylum, which is not illegal.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Tom Hals in Wilmington., Del., Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Jan Wolfe and Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)