The Trump administration has 30 days to reunite migrant families split up by immigration authorities, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, in a rebuke that blocked the administration from continuing the widely reviled practice.
The injunction signed by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw temporarily blocks family separations while a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union continues, and requires the government to put together a plan to expedite reunifications. For children younger than five years old, the government has only 14 days to put them back into the care of their parents.
Under the terms of the injunction, the Justice Department may still prosecute parents on immigration charges when they arrive in the U.S. with their children. But the children may only remain separated for the brief time that their parents appear before a federal judge to face those charges and serve the sentences, which typically run for only a few days. The government may not continue to send the children to shelters hundreds of miles away from their parents.
The Trump administration began to systematically split up families at the border in early May as part of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, sending adults to be prosecuted and children into separate government custody.
Facing public backlash, President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week saying he would halt family separations but push for the ability to detain parents and their children together long-term instead.
The ACLU and other immigrant rights advocates say the executive order leaves the Trump administration with far too much discretion to keep splitting up families, and that families already separated aren’t being reunited quickly enough. Last week, the ACLU asked a judge to take urgent action to block the government from separating migrant families and to implement a plan to reunite those already split up within 30 days.
The Trump administration argued in a court filing on Tuesday that a court order would be unnecessary because of the executive order and the government’s efforts to reunify families. Placing court-ordered requirements on those efforts would be “likely to slow that process and cause confusion,” the government wrote in its filing.
Although the Trump administration has claimed it’s reunifying families, it’s only doing so if the parents agree to be deported, according to reports. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress on Tuesday that the government will only reunite children with their parents in detention if federal law changes so they can be detained long-term.
There are still more than 2,000 children who were separated from their families in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for kids who were apprehended without their parents or taken from them, officials told reporters on Tuesday.
The family separations at the border started well before the administration announced its zero tolerance policy, as evidenced by the Ms. L case. The lead plaintiff in the case is a Congolese woman who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter after crossing through a legal port of entry into San Diego as an asylum-seeker in November. The government said it could not establish that the woman, identified as Ms. L in court documents, was actually the girl’s mother, but offered her no explanation for their separation at the time, according to court documents.
It took months ― and for the ACLU to sue on Ms. L’s behalf ― for the government to finally do a DNA test and confirm that the two were family. They have since been released.
The ACLU later added another plaintiff, a Brazilian asylum-seeker identified as Ms. C who was separated from her 14-year-old daughter after being prosecuted for crossing the border illegally. In March, the ACLU filed to create a class-action suit.
“I cannot express enough how bad the situation has become,” Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney, told the judge during a hearing by telephone on Friday. “Every night we are hearing stories of children going to sleep asking if they’re ever going to see their parents again.”
Separately, 18 state attorneys general filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to block family separations at the border, arguing that the practice violates parents’ due process rights and is an “irrationally discriminatory” policy because it applies only to the U.S. southwest border and largely affects people from Latin America.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.