The Biden administration has broken nearly as many immigration-related promises as it has kept, according to frustrated advocates for immigration reform. Now, they are increasingly concerned that the White House is losing its nerve on yet another: a chance at legal residency in the United States for migrant families separated during the Trump administration.
“Allowing families to remain in the U.S. is essential to putting this ugly episode behind us and finally allowing these children to begin to heal. Sending them back to danger is not the answer,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Although only a handful of families have thus far been reunited, I’m optimistic the pace will significantly increase now that we and the government have agreed on a system that can be scaled up.”
Since Biden’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families was created by executive order nine months ago, its work has proceeded at a glacial pace. The task force has only reunited 58 children with their parents since its formation, according the Department of Homeland Security, just eight more kids since the release of a progress report in October that showed 1,727 children still believed to be separated from their parents.
The leaden pace of family reunifications has not been for a lack of trying on the task force’s part. Working alongside non-governmental organizations and attorneys representing families torn apart by former President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies, the task force has made contact with nearly 1,300 families since its inception. They expect more to come after the launch of twin websites—one in English and another in Spanish, with five additional languages for indigenous speakers who were particularly vulnerable to Trump’s policies—that allow separated families to register with the government and begin the reunification. According to DHS, 211 additional children have been identified through those websites.
But amidst growing public scrutiny over negotiations to provide financial settlements to some of the thousands of families that were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies, attorneys and advocates who have spent years working to reunite those children with their loved ones warn that reunification is more than simply a question of matching parents and children.
Under Trump’s policy, many parents who had been forcibly separated from their children upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were told that they had a choice: either be deported immediately and leave their children to seek an asylum claim alone, or be deported with their child to their home countries, where children are often particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violence at the hands of local gangs or corrupt government officials.
Family members who were swiftly deported to their countries of origin while their children remained in the United States to adjudicate their asylum claims, one attorney told The Daily Beast, have no interest in a “reunification” if it requires a child returning to a country where their life could be in danger.
“Many of these children have completely viable asylum claims, or they would, if the asylum process weren’t being completely neglected,” one immigration attorney representing a client who was separated from their child under “zero tolerance” in 2018. “A reunification that requires a child to abandon a viable asylum claim in the U.S. in order to be returned to a parent who underwent removal proceedings isn’t a reunification—it’s a deportation.”
The only way to address that catch-22, immigration advocates say, is to allow parents who were deported without their children to reunite with them on American soil, with the promise of legal resident status.
“Reunification alone isn’t the end-all to making these families whole again,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps settle refugees and asylees in the United States. “Those reuniting on humanitarian parole have only temporary immigration status; yet the mental and emotional damage the Trump administration inflicted on them is permanent. We need to make sure there’s a real pathway to U.S. residency for these families, because permanent legal status is critical to providing the stability and certainty they need to rebuild their lives.”
Since the task force’s creation, however, the Biden administration has avoided committing to guaranteed legal status for victims of the previous administration’s family separation policies. In February, one administration official told reporters that the matter would be “examined on an individual basis, taking into account the preferences of the family and the well-being of the children.” Another administration official told The Daily Beast at the time that the White House would be “getting ahead of the work of the task force” by “wading into hypotheticals here” on questions about legal status.
Instead, the Biden administration has repeatedly stalled or reverted to policies that mirror those of past administrations—a decision that has sparked increasingly public criticism from migrant-rights organizations over what they perceive as the president’s broken promises on immigration issues. The White House did not respond to questions about how many of the 50 children reunified by the task force—or reunified, period—have been extended some form of legal residency in the United States. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security only said that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas “strongly supports the passage of legislation to grant separated families legal status in the United States to ensure their safety and stability.”
“Families who are currently reunified and arrive in the United States are eligible for three years of humanitarian parole and work authorization,” the spokesperson said, “and can apply to renew that status when it expires. Families are also eligible to apply for asylum, if they choose.”
Where the issue is addressed at all, the question of legal residency for separated families that was once promised to be “examined on an individual basis” has effectively been punted to Congress.
The Department of Homeland Security’s progress report states only that there are multiple bills in Congress that would provide “long-term immigration status options for separated families.” While the progress report notes that members of the task force have helped shape the technical language of that legislation, the difficulty in passing any immigration-related legislation through Congress has effectively doomed those efforts before they can even be debated.
The reality that the Families Belong Together Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for families separated under Trump’s policies, is unlikely to become law anytime soon means that the administration needs to create a system for reunification on American soil with a pathway to legal residency, advocates say.
“The progress is slow, but every reunification means the world to a family traumatized by the egregious moral stain the ‘zero tolerance’ policy represents,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “We encourage the Biden administration to demonstrate greater transparency around these families’ immigration status as it works with Congress to deliver long-term solutions and much-needed legal and mental health services.”