A Biden administration task force will soon reunify 29 migrant families separated at the border under a Trump-era enforcement policy, slowly building on the seven families reunified last month, according to a progress report it released Tuesday.
According to the task force report, 5,636 migrant children were separated from their parents between July 2017 and when President Donald Trump left office. That includes 3,913 children separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy to refer all adults who cross the border without authorization, a misdemeanor, for criminal prosecution.
Immigrant advocates criticized the slow pace of the new administration’s reunification efforts.
“We are pleased that the task force is up and running. Would we have liked to have seen things move quicker? Yes,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading litigation against the prior family separation policy.
The ACLU is currently involved in settlement negotiations with the Biden administration. Gelernt told reporters that negotiations, which began in March, have been “constructive” and are “being held in good faith.”
“We don’t intend to look backwards about what could have been done during the past six months. We just now would like to see this task force, and the administration generally, move much more quickly,” he said Tuesday.
The report marks the first update on progress made by the family reunification task force President Joe Biden created by executive order to identify and reunify all families separated under the Trump administration. Chaired by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the task force must submit subsequent progress reports to the White House every 60 days.
“For too long, families have been separated under the inhumane policies set in place under the previous administration,” Michelle Brané, executive director of the task force, said in a statement Tuesday.
While the majority of the children identified remain in the U.S. and were released to sponsors, if not their parents, five of those minors remain in government custody. In more than 1,300 cases, the parent was deported to the home country without their child. More than half of those separated hailed from Guatemala.
The number of migrant families separated during the early months of the Trump administration is still “unknown,” the report says.
Of those total children confirmed separated under the zero-tolerance policy, the task force confirmed 1,786 children have been reunified with their parents. It does not have records of family reunifications, however, for another 2,127 minors, the report says.
This would likely include the 391 separated children who attorneys and nongovernmental organizations have been unable to locate or reach as part of the ACLU litigation, as well as families that have been identified but were not yet reunited.
The report noted that data on children not yet reunified is subject to change as the task force analyzes more data, and that some families may have reunited on their own.
However, Gelernt said he believes the actual number of children not yet reunified is lower. According to the ACLU’s records, more than 2,100 families were reunited in the U.S. in the summer of 2018 alone, he said.
“We do not believe those numbers accurately reflect what’s happened, and we will be sharing additional information with the administration. We believe that many more people actually have been reunited,” he said.
‘More must be done’
Advocates have called for the government to go further than reunification and give separated migrant families permanent status in the U.S., an issue Gelernt said is “central to the negotiations” with the government.
DHS is considering requests from 58 individuals to enter the U.S. under a process known as “parole” to reunify with their children in the country, while four have already entered at land ports of entry under that process. The administration plans to allow these individuals to stay and work in the U.S. for 36 months.
The department expects to issue decisions in those pending parole requests “in the next few weeks,” and it anticipates receiving a “steady increase” in such requests, according to the report.
“As the Task Force matures, it will build upon best practices to ensure successful family reunifications,” the report says.
However, parole does not put families on a path to a green card.
Bryan Chavez, a Mexican citizen who was separated from his mom at the border under the former administration’s policy, was recently reunited with his mother as one of the first family reunifications orchestrated by the task force. But he worries they could be separated again.
“Am I going to have to go through the whole process of being separated from my mom again?” he said on a press call.
Immigrant advocates and lawmakers have also called for more social and mental health services for separated families.
In a joint statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the progress report “makes it clear that important strides are being made to mitigate the immeasurable harm that resulted from the Trump Administration’s cruel family separation policy.”
However, “much more must be done,” they said.
“For many of these families, reunification alone is not enough. We look forward to receiving future Task Force reports, which we expect will include recommendations and plans for additional support and services for families in need,” they said.
Conchita Cruz, co-executive director for the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, also pushed for some sort of victims’ compensation fund to provide monetary damages as a result of pain and suffering experienced by separated families.
“That is not only the right thing to do for the families who were separated at the border, but it is the right thing to do as a policy,” she told reporters. “If the government has to pay for these mistakes, it will make it less likely that future administrations attempt to separate families and violate the rights of asylum-seekers.”