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Judge encourages government, advocates to find faster solution to identify additional separated families

A San Diego federal judge pushed both sides to work together in an ongoing court battle over family separation to come up with the most accurate and efficient way to identify more children split from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The federal government initially said that the search for additional cases could take up to two years. Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represent separated parents in the lawsuit, said the government's plan was too slow.

Instead of making a determination in the matter, District Judge Dana Sabraw called on both sides to work together "for a common good."

As reunifications of the initial families identified in the lawsuit wrap up, District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered last month that all families separated since July 1, 2017, be identified and accounted for.

That order significantly increased the number of children's files that would have to be analyzed to find all those affected. Previously, the government had to sort through files of children in federal custody as unaccompanied children as of June 26, 2018, to find those who had initially come with their parents.

"This is a very significant issue obviously," Sabraw said on Tuesday. "It is as important as the initial reunification. The same care and attention needs to be paid to this second reunification."

In a court filing before Tuesday's phone-in hearing, the government proposed making a statistical model to sort the approximate 47,000 children who passed through government custody without a parent during that time range. It said that its review of the cases could take up to two years.

ACLU attorneys, in their own filing, called the government's plan a "callous disregard for these families."

The ACLU called for a manual review of each child's file from several agencies in order to determine whether he or she had been separated and said that such a review could be completed in a matter of months based on attorneys' experience with such files.

On Tuesday's phone call, an attorney for the government objected to the ACLU's characterizations of its proposal, calling them extreme and aggressive.

The government attorney also objected to the ACLU's evidence, calling declarations from attorneys who had worked with the files "weak."

Meanwhile, Sabraw praised both sides for working together in what he called a "Herculean effort" to reunite more than 2,700 children with their parents. While he said he thought the government's plan could be improved upon, including beginning to identify and reunite families more quickly, he deferred to government and advocacy experts to work together to figure out how to go about it. He specifically asked the parties to include Commander Jonathan White, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services who is in charge of family reunifications.

"The parties are experts, and there's no better team than that," Sabraw said.

Sabraw encouraged them to find ways to pick out "low hanging fruit" – children who might be more quickly identified as separated.

He scheduled another check-in for Wednesday, April 24, to hear the anticipated joint proposal.

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