ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. government says it needs more time to reunite about 100 of the youngest migrant children it separated from their parents at the southern border. These are the so-called tender-age children under the age of 5. They were taken to youth shelters across the country while their parents were detained. Only about half of them will be reunited by tomorrow's court-imposed deadline. John Burnett is on the line with us from Austin. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reunify these families by tomorrow. The government says it won't happen. What's the latest?
BURNETT: Well, a Justice Department lawyer, Sarah Fabian, said the government would be able to reunify at least 54 of these 100 very small kids by tomorrow's deadline and maybe as many as 59. What's slowing them down is they haven't been able to find some of the parents. Some have already been deported back to Central America, and others were released into the interior of the U.S. And some of the parents are still being vetted by a really time-consuming process to determine if they're safe to release the kiddos back to. The judge indicated he understands this is slow going, and he'll push the deadline back. But he wants compliance.
SHAPIRO: So what does that mean? What happens next?
BURNETT: So Judge Dana Sabraw told the lawyers to be back in his courtroom tomorrow morning. He wants the DOJ lawyer to tell him exactly how many kids will go back with their parents and how long it will take to reunify the others. The government says you can't rush the process because they have to do DNA testing and criminal background checks and make sure the parents are who they say they are - they're not human smugglers.
The ACLU, which is representing the parents, is asking the government to streamline that process. Remember, we're talking about babies, toddlers and kindergarten-age children. And their advocates want them back with the parents ASAP. I should add the government says these families won't be sent into detention again. They'll be released into the U.S. to await their asylum hearings.
SHAPIRO: And we're only talking about 100 of the youngest kids aged 5 and under. Immigration agents separated nearly 3,000 kids from their parents during this especially harsh period of President Trump's zero-tolerance policy. What about those thousands of other kids?
BURNETT: Right. So this is only the first deadline. The judge told the government they have to release and reunify all the rest of the kids by July 26, which is less than three weeks away. After the hearing today, I asked Lee Gelernt about that. He's the ACLU attorney who's negotiating with the government about this reunification process.
LEE GELERNT: There are enormous number of those children between 2,000 and 3,000. We hope that the government has already made significant progress on the reunification of those children. If not, we will likely be looking at this same type of hearing process.
BURNETT: So far, Judge Sabraw, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has been holding hearings to make sure the government honors those very strict timelines.
SHAPIRO: And just briefly, John, what can you tell us about this meeting that took place today between the Homeland Security secretary and a group of immigration advocates?
BURNETT: Right. And if the government has lost ground in California federal court, it wasn't giving an inch in Washington. A bunch of advocates met with the Homeland Security secretary. And (laughter) the meeting was described as icy by one of the participants to me. The advocates came in asking for alternatives to detention, for the government to stop turning down asylum claims based on domestic violence and gang mayhem. And they said the secretary was only interested in reaffirming the White House priorities.
SHAPIRO: All right. NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.