President Joe Biden is set to formally create a task force charged with reuniting migrant families that were separated under his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies. But with an unknown number of immigrant children still separated from their parents across national borders, it remains unclear how many of those families will be reunited on American soil.
Biden will seek to undo the “moral shame” that the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies brought on the United States, one senior administration official said ahead of the order’s signing, with agencies partnering “across the hemisphere” to find parents and children who were separated. The order, one of three immigration-related executive orders set to be signed Tuesday, also revokes the one that former President Donald Trump signed attempting to justify the practice.
Biden, the administration official said in a press briefing on Monday night, “committed to remedying this awful harm” during the presidential campaign, and views the formation of a family-reunification task force as the first step in doing so. But as The Daily Beast reported in December, stakeholders and advocates have said that the issue of family separation can only be truly addressed by allowing parents who were deported without their kids to reunite with them on American soil, and to provide them legal status—a proposal that officials declined to commit to on the call.
“While we welcome any help a Biden administration can give us in locating the remaining families, that’s not what we believe their focus should be,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told The Daily Beast at the time. “We will ultimately find these families, but only the administration can allow the families to return to the United States, and provide them legal status.”
Cases will be “examined on an individual basis, taking into account the preferences of the family and the well-being of the children,” one official said when asked whether families would be reunited in the United States. Asked to clarify whether legal status might be extended to any families in which parents were removed from the country without their children, an administration spokesperson told The Daily Beast that while they didn’t want to “wad[e] into hypotheticals” ahead of the task force’s work, domestic reunification could be “one of the options available.”
Currently, most “reunifications” have entailed returning a child to their country of origin, regardless of the status of that child’s case for asylum. In effect, the practice has forced deported parents to choose between being with their child or allowing them to pursue legal status in the United States.
Officials instead focused on the importance of creating a framework for identifying and locating all of the children and parents who were separated under a trio of initiatives under Trump that became known by the shorthand “zero-tolerance.” Under the policy, all migrant adults who entered the United States illegally were prosecuted and held in jails or detention centers; all children who entered in their company were held in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. The conditions in which the children were held were abysmal, and pediatric advocates have warned that the trauma of the separation policy could extend for decades.
“No one really knows the exact number,” one official told reporters, of the number of children who were separated. “It could be as high as 1,000, but no one really knows.”
The other executive orders, too, are intended to undo as much of Trump’s legacy on punitizing the immigration system as possible.
“Chaos, cruelty and confusion don’t enhance security,” an administration official said, summing up Trump’s legacy as being “so focused on the wall that he did nothing to address the root causes” of immigration into the United States from Central America.
A second executive order will task the State Department, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security with conducting a review of all immigration regulations and policies enacted under Trump. The review “will likely lead to dramatic changes in policies that have impeded access to immigration benefits,” an administration official said, which “have impacted families, workers, victors and survivors of domestic violence, trafficking and other victims of crime.” Among the regulations to be reviewed includes Trump’s enactment of the “public charge rule,” which essentially created a wealth test for immigrants applying for green cards.
The third executive order directs DHS to review the Migrant Protection Protocols program, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” rule, which requires those seeking asylum in the United States to stay in Mexico while their claim is processed. The rule is widely seen as violating both U.S. and international law.