Thirty-two unaccompanied immigrant children who were deported to Guatemala despite a judge's order have yet to be brought back to the US to apply for asylum, six months after the government admitted it was in the wrong. Now, immigration advocates are ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to speed up the process.
“It has been months since these children were expelled in violation of a court order and we need answers immediately,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU who led the lawsuit challenging the Trump-era policy. “The children need to be given a chance to speak to us as counsel and the option to return to the US if they choose.”
In a January filing admitting the violation of the court order, US officials said they would begin the process to return the 32 children to the US. The offer was the culmination of a monthslong saga over a Nov. 18 flight to Guatemala, which occurred shortly after US Judge Emmet Sullivan blocked the Trump administration from turning back unaccompanied children under the argument that it would protect against further spread of COVID-19.
Roughly 10 minutes after the court order was issued, ICE officials deported the children on a jet.
BuzzFeed News first reported on the flight and the violation of the court order, something US officials later acknowledged by saying that “the expulsion flight was in contravention of the Court’s injunction.”
“DHS is committed to remedy the situation and will take immediate steps to begin to facilitate the return of all 32 unaccompanied minors discussed herein, including covering the cost of their flight to the United States, upon confirmation that they would like to return to the United States to be processed,” they added.
US officials maintained in court that they would pay for the flights of any of the children who wished to return and were working to bring them back as efficiently as possible.
But since that filing, ACLU attorneys say that the government has yet to follow through. A source with knowledge of the case said that the Guatemalan government has contacted nearly all of the families, but many had questions over what would happen to the children when they reached the US.
“We believe this has taken far too long and needs to be resolved immediately,” Gelernt said. “We see no reason why this needs to be brought back to court, but that will depend on whether we can make immediate progress.”
Department of Homeland Security officials said they could not comment on ongoing litigation.
In December, a lead ICE official told the court that personnel on the ground handed the children over to Guatemalan officials within 15 minutes of landing during a period when they did not know about Sullivan's order. And, the official added, ICE wasn’t aware of the order until nearly 15 minutes after the children had been transferred. Later that afternoon, officials said they were informed that DHS had determined the children should not be brought back on the return flight.
But a later court filing cites a report issued by the Guatemalan government that describes how ICE officials had initially considered bringing the children back to the US immediately. An ICE deportation official, Evan Katz, confirmed in the filing that the agency had sought Guatemalan approval to return most of the children to the US, and many of them reboarded the plane as part of the process. Katz told the court that an ICE assistant attaché in Guatemala received an email from an agency colleague that afternoon stating: “The single minors have disembarked however they want the kids to be returned to the US.”
Soon after, US officials decided that the children should not come back and the kids were taken off the plane.
In late January, an appeals court stayed Sullivan’s decision as the government had a chance to appeal the ruling. Then, weeks later, the Biden administration announced that it would not move forward with the policy of turning back unaccompanied immigrant children at the border, and the case went on pause as the ACLU and US officials discussed a way to potentially settle.