“Our process may not be as quick as some might like, but there is no question that it is protecting children,” Mr. Meekins said in a conference call with reporters.
In some cases, he said, “If we had just reunited kids with the adults, we would be putting them in the care of a rapist, a kidnapper, a child abuser and someone who was charged with murder in their home nation.”
One of the biggest operators of migrant-youth shelters in the United States, Southwest Key Programs, said its staff had dispatched several children on Tuesday from its shelters to return to their parents.
“Our staff came in early, made sure every backpack was full and every child got a hug and a goodbye,” Juan Sánchez, the nonprofit group’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “And the kids hugged us back. They were excited to be on their way to be with their families. And we were thrilled for them.”
The nonprofit declined to discuss how many children under 5 were released.
The reunification process has highlighted how traumatic separations stemming from the zero-tolerance policy have been.
One Honduran father had been warned by border agents that his child would be taken away, and he had been given an opportunity to explain to his son what would happen. He beamed while his son asked questions and played with toys when they were reunited Tuesday at a federal immigration office in Michigan.
A second father was not given a chance to tell his 3-year-old son that they would be separated, according to Abril Valdes, a lawyer for both men. His child had stopped talking soon after being taken into government custody. The father and son cried throughout the reunification meeting. The boy said little and refused to take any toys or leave his father’s arms.
“I feel like he’s still in shell shock,” said Ms. Valdes, their lawyer.