In the closing days of the presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to make reuniting the hundreds of migrant children forcibly separated from their families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy a top priority of his new administration.
But those who have dedicated much of the past two years to reuniting those children with their loved ones say that the continued challenges posed by President Donald Trump’s family separation policy are far more complicated than merely matching parents and children—and can only be truly addressed by the president-elect backing reforms that would allow parents who were deported without their kids to reunite on American soil.
But since Biden’s pledge in the final days of the campaign to form a federal task force to reunite those children with their parents, the makeup of that task force, the resources allotted to it, and its specific plan of action has remained a relative mystery. The Biden transition has kept the planning for the task force, the members of which have not yet been announced, under wraps, and allies in the nonprofit sphere say they’re not sure that the scope of the task force will be enough to fix the damage of one of Trump’s most despised immigration policies.
“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,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “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.”
“You should be putting in place policies and procedures to help parents return quickly and safely to the United States, so that they can reunify with their children,” Jennifer Podkul, the vice president of policy and advocacy for nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, told reporters on a phone briefing last month. “They should make immediate immigration reprieve options available for separated families to ensure there’s stability and prevent deportation and work with Congress to create a pathway to permanent lawful status for separated parents and children.”
Until now, many family reunifications have entailed returning children to their countries of origin to be with family members who were previously deported, a wrenching decision that can mean forcing a parent to choose between seeing their child again or allowing their child to make their case for asylum in the United States.
“I can’t even imagine what that would be like to be separated from your family member, but the reunification in home-country, particularly when a lot of folks coming were seeking asylum… it really doesn’t make sense,” said Leah Chavla, senior policy adviser in the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It feels insufficient or unsatisfactory, right? They were, in some cases, deprived of the right to due process for their claims and they may potentially be still in hiding.”
In conversations with half a dozen immigration attorneys, advocates for migrant rights, and experts on children in the asylum system, top authorities in the field told The Daily Beast that despite waning public interest after the reversal of a policy that the Trump administration once claimed never existed, the family separation crisis has remained extremely dire.
“It’s been very difficult, I feel like the deck has been stacked against us in many ways, but we have been continuing really ardent efforts, zealous efforts to try to find these families,” said Chavla. “We’re talking about families that could have been separated as far back as July 1st 2017, so it’s quite some time. Any information that the government did have on these parents and these families… a lot of it is outdated or spotty to begin with, and now with the passage of time obviously that just makes things a little more complicated.”
According to the most recent court filing submitted by the attorneys tasked with locating migrant parents who were separated from their children by the Trump administration, they are still attempting to locate the parents of 666 children. But that number only tells part of the story of the challenges of family reunification.
“A lot of people think that those are the only families that are separated, but the number of families that are separated with the parents in Central America is much larger than that,” Chelernt said. “We have found hundreds of parents. But even though we’ve found them, the Trump administration won’t let the parents come back.”
During the presidential campaign, Biden pointed to the family separation policy—wherein thousands of migrant minors at the U.S. border were forcibly separated from their asylum-seeking parents and families, held in medically and psychologically dangerous conditions at detention facilities scattered across the country, and in an estimated 666 cases were never reunited with their loved ones—as perhaps the most heinous example of Trump’s immigration policies, and one of the most shameful chapters in American immigration history.
“Let’s talk about what happened,” Biden said during his final debate with Trump. “Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 of the sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
One week later, Biden’s campaign pledged in an advertisement that aired four days before the election to that “on his first day as president, Joe Biden will issue an executive order creating a federal task force to reunite these children with their parents,” after media reports found that there were still hundreds of kids separated from their families.
Close allies on Capitol Hill have already begun pushing legislation that would go much further than simply reuniting the children with their parents abroad. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) intend to re-introduce legislation, first proposed in 2019, that would provide the victims family separation policy with legal immigration status and a path to citizenship.
Although the bill, titled the “Families Belong Together Act,” is authored by two staunch allies of the nascent Biden administration and even shares its name with a common refrain from the former vice president’s campaign remarks on immigration, it’s unclear whether the president-elect supports the legislation. The Biden transition did not respond to requests for comment about the bill, or about the makeup of the as-yet unnamed task force.
Still, some of those organizations have already laid out their plans for enacting proper family reunification, and indicated that all the transition needs to do for their help is to ask.
“We don’t want them to think all they need to do is help us find the families and that’s the extent of the help we want. Ultimately, we can find the families on our own,” said the ACLU’s Gelernt. “The main thing is we need them to do what only they can do, which is allow parents to come back to the U.S. and then give them legal status here.”