Trump now faces court deadline over reuniting migrant families
The clock is ticking for the Trump administration after a federal judge ordered the thousands of migrant children and parents who were forcibly separated at the Mexican border to be reunited within 30 days, and sooner for youngsters under five.
The hard deadline was set by US District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego after President Donald Trump's order ending his policy of separating families gave way to days of uncertainty, conflicting information and no word from the administration on when parents might see their children again.
"This situation has reached a crisis level," Mr Sabraw wrote.
The ruling poses a host of logistical problems for the administration, and it was unclear how it would meet the deadline.
Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the children, referred questions to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department said the ruling makes it "even more imperative that Congress finally act to give federal law enforcement the ability to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together".
"Without this action by Congress, lawlessness at the border will continue," the department said.
Mr Sabraw, an appointee of Republican President George W Bush, said that children under five must be reunited with their parents within 14 days.
He also issued a nationwide injunction against further family separations, unless the parent is deemed unfit or doesn't want to be with the child, and ordered the government to provide phone contact between parents and their children within 10 days.
The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sued in March on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who was separated from her Congolese mother and a 14-year-old boy who was taken from his Brazilian mother.
"Tears will be flowing in detention centres across the country when the families learn they will be reunited," said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.
More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in recent weeks and placed in government-contracted shelters - hundreds of kilometres away, in some cases - under a "zero tolerance" policy toward families caught illegally entering the US.
Amid an international outcry, Mr Trump last week issued an executive order to stop the separation of families, and said that parents and children will instead be detained together.
However, parents already separated from their children were left in the dark on when and how they would be reunited, and Homeland Security seemed only to sow more confusion over the weekend.
"The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance - responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government's own making," Mr Sabraw wrote.
"They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our constitution."
Since Mr Trump issued the executive order, the administration has been casting about for detention space for holding families together.
It has asked the courts to modify a 1997 settlement that generally bars the government from keeping children locked up with their parents for more than 20 days.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress that his department still has custody of 2,047 immigrant children separated from their parents at the border - only six fewer than had been the case last Wednesday.
Democratic senators said that wasn't nearly enough progress. During Congressional testimony on Tuesday, Mr Azar declined to be pinned down on how long it would take to reunite separated families. "We have to expeditiously get children out of our care," he said.
He said his department does extensive vetting of parents to make sure that they are not traffickers masquerading as parents.
Also challenging will be the requirement the judge set on phone contact. At a Texas detention facility near Los Fresnos, immigrant advocates complained that parents have got busy signals or no answer from a 1-800 number set up by federal authorities to get information about their children.
"The US government never had any plan to reunite these families that were separated," Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, of the Legal Aid Justice Centre, in Virginia, said.