SAN DIEGO — Lugging little backpacks, smiling immigrant children were scooped up into their parents' arms Tuesday as the Trump administration scrambled to meet a court-ordered deadline to reunite dozens of youngsters forcibly separated from their families at the border.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, two boys and a girl who had been in temporary foster care were reunited with their Honduran fathers at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center about three months after they were split up.
The three fathers were "just holding them and hugging them and telling them that everything was fine and that they were never going to be separated again," said immigration lawyer Abril Valdes.
One of the fathers, Ever Reyes Mejia, walked out of the ICE center carrying his beaming son and the boy's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack. The boy was secured in a booster seat, and father and son were driven away. Lawyers said the fathers were too distraught to speak to the news media.
The Justice Department said more than 50 children under age 5 could be back in the arms of their parents by the deadline at the end of the day.
It was the largest single effort to date to undo the effects of President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy of separating families who try to slip across the Mexican border into the U.S.
Authorities gave few details on where the reunions would be held, and many were expected to take place in private.
In Grand Rapids, the children were "absolutely thrilled to be with their parents again. It's all confusing to them why there's so many people here and why there's so many strangers here, but they know that they're safe," Valdes said outside the ICE offices.
Government attorneys, meanwhile, told a federal judge in San Diego that the Trump administration would not meet the deadline for 20 other children under 5 because it needed more time to track down parents who have already been deported or released into the U.S.
Asked about the missed deadline, the president said: "Well, I have a solution. Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That's the solution."
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, whose organization filed the lawsuit that forced the administration's hand, said he was "both thrilled and disappointed" with the government's work on the deadline.
"Things have taken a real step forward," Gelernt said.
The administration faces a second, bigger deadline — July 26 — to reunite perhaps 2,000 or so older children who were also separated from their families at the border in the past few months.
On Tuesday morning, staff members at a nonprofit organization that has been housing many of the youngest children "made sure every backpack was full and every child got a hug and a goodbye," Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez said.
Authorities said most of the parents would be released into the U.S. from immigration detention centers, and the children would be freed from government-contracted shelters and foster care. The adults may be required to wear ankle monitors while their cases wind through immigration court, a process that can take years.
Thousands of babies, toddlers and older children were separated from their parents at the border this spring before Trump reversed course on June 20 amid an international outcry over the images of youngsters in chain-link cages and audio recordings of children crying.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego set a 14-day deadline to reunite children under 5 with their parents and a 30-day deadline for older children.
On Tuesday, Sabraw showed little appetite for giving more time to the government unless it could show good reasons in specific cases.
"These are firm deadlines. They're not aspirational goals," the judge said.
In trying to meet the first deadline, the government began with a list of 102 children potentially eligible to be reunited and whittled that to 75 through screening that included DNA testing done by swabbing the inside of the cheek.
Of those 75, Justice Department attorneys told the court the government already reunited four children and would guarantee 34 others would be back with their parents by the end of Tuesday. They said an additional 17 could also join their parents if DNA results arrived and a criminal background check on a parent was completed by day's end.
The government defended its screening, saying it discovered parents with serious criminal histories and one case of credible child abuse.
In ordering an end to the separation of families, the president said they should instead be detained together. But the government does not have the room: ICE has three family detention centers with space for 3,000 people, and they are already at or near capacity, though the Trump administration is trying to line up space at military bases.
SHIPROCK, N.M. — From the end of World War II to the mid-1980s, about 30 million ton of uranium ore were extracted from lands belonging to the nation's largest American Indian reservation. Today, across the Navajo Nation, sit dozens of abandoned uranium mines and the high risk to residents of contamination exposure.
Now, the Navajo Nation is urging the U.S. Congress to expand a federal law that compensates people who were exposed to radiation resulting from nuclear bomb tests stemming from the Cold War.
Currently, the law only covers people who lived downwind from nuclear test sites in Nevada, Arizona and Utah, as well as workers in the uranium mining industry in a dozen states. But the tribe says it's time for Navajo Nation workers after 1971 to be included.
"Many members of the federal government are not aware of the effects uranium mining has had on Navajo people," Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said. "They don't see the consequences of radiation exposure."
Most claims under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act come from the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. Proposed amendments would expand the cutoff for uranium mining workers from 1971 to 1990.
Navajo officials say those workers were exposed to the same harmful conditions.
The push by the Navajo Nation comes as residents of the New Mexico village of Tularosa near the site of the world's first atomic bomb test also want to be covered under the law. The Tularosa Basin Downwinders and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez testified before a U.S. Senate committee last month examining potential changes to the law.
A bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico would expand eligibility for payouts under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1990.
Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa consortium, said many who lived in the area weren't told about the dangers of the first atom bomb test, known as the Trinity Test, on generations of residents and later were diagnosed with rare forms of cancer.
Scientists working in Los Alamos developed the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, which provided enriched uranium for the weapon. The secret program also involved facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.
The bomb was tested in a stretch of desert near towns with Hispanic and Native American populations.
City staff may begin receiving a benefit few others have come across: paid family leave.
Should the city council approve the measure, city employees would be eligible for up to 160 hours, or about one month, of paid family leave during any 12-month period.
Firefighters would receive up to 224 hours of leave.
Staff would be eligible for the leave after the birth or adoption of a child, being newly appointed as a child’s legal guardian or in cases of stillbirth. It is also available in the case of the placement of a foster child, limited to once per year.
The measure received unanimous support during the July 3 council meeting and it is expected to be approved by the council on Aug. 21.
Councilmember Charlie Odegaard said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see the inclusion of foster children as a reason one could take leave. Odegaard, who has fostered children in the past, said he was also happy that the city as an organization could express that they valued families.
Councilmember Eva Putzova, who pushed for the measure to be included in this year’s budget, agreed.
“At some point it’s difficult to talk about family values and not follow through,” said Putzova, adding that in Slovakia, where she grew up, such a benefit is seen as almost a right.
Paid family leave was added to the city’s budget last year but was taken out as other priorities came to take precedence, Putzova said.
At the moment, a staff member who wants to take time off for a pregnancy is allowed to do so under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, but this is unpaid. For paid time, a staff member would have to use any vacation or sick time they had built up.
The measure also includes $40,000 for filling positions that might be left vacant during the leave. There are certain positions that must remain staffed at all times, usually by giving another employee additional responsibilities.
Paid leave would be available to all employees who have worked at the city for at least six months.
Part-time employees will be eligible for a smaller amount of leave based on how many hours they work per week. For example, an eligible employee who works 20 hours per week would be eligible for a maximum of 80 hours of parental leave.
If the measure is passed, the city will become one of the only major employers to offer paid family leave. Neither Coconino County, nor Northern Arizona University, offer paid family leave and Putzova said she hopes the city could push other agencies and employers to offer the benefit.
She also said she hopes the council will be able to extend the amount of paid time city staff receive. One month is a good start, Putzova said, but she would like to see it become three months or even a year.
On one hand, she said, she is extremely happy the council had the courage to make the change, but she wished they had gone farther.