The Biden administration has launched a new programme that it says will expand efforts to find and reunite migrant families who were separated at the US-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on irregular crossings.
A US federal task force said on Monday that the programme would help find many parents who are in remote Central American communities but whose children are in the United States.
“The Biden Administration is taking a new step toward finding and helping families who were cruelly separated at the border under the previous administration,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a tweet.
The Biden Administration is taking a new step toward finding and helping families who were cruelly separated at the border under the previous administration.
— Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (@SecMayorkas) September 13, 2021
The programme includes a web portal that will allow parents to contact the US government to begin the process of reunification. The information on the website, as well as in outreach materials, is available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
The effort also involves a contract with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to help with the often-complex task of getting expelled migrants back to the US.
Since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden has sought to claw back some of Trump’s most hardline policies curtailing immigration into the US. But Biden administration officials said the process has been complicated by a lack of up-to-date records, among other hurdles.
“We recognise that we can’t make these families completely whole again,” Michelle Brane, executive director of the Family Reunification Task Force said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But we want to do everything we can to put them on a path towards a better life.”
The task force has reunited about 50 families since starting its work in late February, but there are hundreds of parents – and perhaps between 1,000 and 2,000 – who were separated from their children and have not been located.
A lack of accurate records from the Trump administration makes it difficult to say for certain, Brane said.
“It is a huge challenge that we are absolutely committed to following through to meet and to do whatever we can to reunify these families,” she said.
The Trump administration separated thousands of migrant parents from their children in 2017 and 2018 as it moved to criminally prosecute people for undocumented crossings of the southwest border with Mexico.
Minors, who could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. They were then typically sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else with a connection to the family.
Amid widespread outrage, Trump issued an executive order halting the practice of family separations in June 2018, days before a federal judge did the same and demanded that separated families be reunited in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
More than 5,500 children were separated from their families, according to the ACLU. The task force came up with an initial estimate closer to 4,000 but has been examining hundreds of other cases.
Most of the parents are believed to be in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil. They often lack passports and the means to travel to their own country’s capital, let alone return to the US to try to gain entry at the border.
Once parents who were separated from their children are located, the US will work with the IOM to help people get passports and other documents and return to the US, where they will get work permits, residency for three years and some support services.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s immigrant rights project, welcomed the Biden administration’s expanded efforts as “an important first step”, though he believes migrants should get more than three years of residency.
“Ultimately, we need the families to be given permanent legal status in light of what the United States government deliberately did to these families,” Gelernt said.
The ACLU is in negotiations with the government to provide some compensation to the families as part of settlement talks.