Biden administration begins ‘long haul’ of reuniting migrant families separated under Trump

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This week, the Biden administration announced that the parents from four different families who were deported to Central America and Mexico without their children under former President Donald Trump will be allowed to cross the border and rejoin their children in the United States.

The families are the first to be reunited in the U.S. since President Biden issued an executive order in February to create a task force dedicated to repairing families torn apart as a result of his predecessor’s controversial family separation policy. The task force, which is led by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, estimates that the number of families who remain separated is over 1,000.

In a statement released Monday, Mayorkas said the reunifications taking place this week are “just the beginning,” promising that “many more will follow.”

“We are thrilled for these first four families, but this is a long haul,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrant Rights Project, told Yahoo News in an email.

Gelernt is the lead attorney in an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the federal government in June 2018 to stop the forcible separation mandated under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy of families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That policy, which was first made public in April 2018, was intended to deter migrant families from attempting to request humanitarian protections at the southern border.

Alejandro Mayorkas

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Although most of the families separated under the zero tolerance policy were reunited in the months after the ACLU first filed suit, it was later revealed that the Trump administration had begun separating migrant families as part of a secret pilot program in 2017, bringing the total number of families separated at the border to more than 5,500. Many of the parents separated under the pilot program — including at least two of the women who were reunited with their children in the U.S. this week — were deported before the program was disclosed to the public.

Prior to the creation of the Biden administration’s task force, a court-appointed steering committee of law firms and nongovernmental organizations had been responsible for identifying and tracking down members of families who were believed to be separated during that pilot program.

The search for the parents, many of whom had been deported to the same countries from which they had initially tried to flee threats of violence, has proven to be a slow and arduous process. Yahoo News previously reported that the steering committee’s efforts included making thousands of calls to often outdated phone numbers provided by the previous administration, setting up a hotline for separated parents with toll-free numbers for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States, and even going door-to-door in those countries .

A woman protesting family separations

A woman in Los Angeles protesting family separations at the border, May 1, 2021. (David McNew AFP via Getty Images)

According to Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, one of the organizations on the court-appointed steering committee, those efforts are ongoing.

“The Women’s Refugee Commission and the rest of the steering committee members are continuing our work to try to find and get in contact with the remaining” families who qualify as part of the ACLU’s lawsuit, Chavla told Yahoo News. “Until we hear otherwise from the ACLU, we’re going to continue that work.”

The ACLU confirmed that the four families reunited in the U.S. this week were originally identified as part of their lawsuit.

“The Task Force continues to be grateful to all the work done by hundreds of advocates working with these families for the past four years and looks forward to continued partnership,” a DHS spokesperson, who declined to be identified on the record, said in an email to Yahoo News. The spokesperson explained that, “for the four families being reunited this week, the Task Force worked with CBP to ensure that they were prepared and informed of the decision to assess these families for humanitarian parole, arranged for access to the ports of entry, and worked with the attorneys to facilitate travel to the final destination.”

In addition to those families who’ve been identified by a court-appointed steering committee, the DHS spokesperson said that “the Task Force is also working to identify any additional families who were separated during the prior administration and fall under its mandate” while also “working to develop a system for processing and reunifying over a thousand families and to set up a system to provide mental health support and stability to thousands more families who are here in the United States and still trying to heal from the trauma caused by their separation.”

The task force is expected to provide a full update on its progress on June 2.

The ACLU is currently negotiating with the Biden administration to settle its lawsuit on behalf of separated families. While the task force has a lot of work to do in order to reunite families separated during the Trump administration, Gelernt said that, based on his negotiations with administration officials, “I believe they are determined to see it through.”

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