The Trump administration claims it needs up to two years to identity and locate an unknown number of migrant children who were separated from their families at the US border as part of the so-called “zero tolerance” policy.
Federal judge Dana Sabraw last year put an end to the controversial practice of splitting children from their parents and criminally prosecuting the adults, as part of a tactic to dissuade migrants from Central America trying to enter the country.
He ordered that 2,700 children who were in government care on June 26 2018 be reunited with their families. In January, the department of health and human services admitted that thousands more children may have been separated than had been previously acknowledged.
Now, the government has said it needs to review as many as 47,000 cases of unaccompanied children taken into government custody between July 1, 2017 and June 25, 2018, and has requested up to two years to do so.
The Associated Press said the department of justice made the request in a court filing late on Friday at the southern district of California federal court in San Diego.
Mr Sabraw ruled last month he could hold the government accountable for families that were separated before his June order and asked the government submit a proposal for the next steps. A hearing is scheduled April 16, the AP said,
In an affidavit, Jonathan White, of the department of health and human searches, said the job of identifying the children was more difficult because of the sheer scale involved.
The policy of splitting children from their families sparked global outcry. While the Trump administration claimed it was merely enforcing rules established by Barack Obama - a claim that was not true - the president eventually signed an executive order terminating the policy. First lady Melania Trump also criticised the tactic.
“We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Mr Trump said last June in the Oval Office as he signed he order. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
Activists have condemned the government’s proposal to take up to two years to identify the migrant children and reunite them with relatives.
“The administration refuses to treat the family separation crisis it created with urgency,” said the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government swiftly gathered resources to tear families apart. It must do the same to fix the damage.”
The department of justice did not immediately respond to enquiries on Saturday.
As it was, Saturday marked the anniversary of Mr Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute every adult who entered the country illegally from Mexico - a policy he was forced to drop.