A handful of migrant families that were separated at the border by the Trump administration will be allowed to reunify in the United States this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced today.
The four families will be the first to be reunified through a task force that was created by President Biden shortly after taking office in January.
The decision to allow migrant parents into the U.S. to reunify with their children here marks a sharp break with the Trump administration, which resisted allowing parents who were previously deported to return.
“Our team is dedicated to finding every family and giving them an opportunity to reunite and heal,” Mayorkas told reporters Sunday. He did not explain how DHS selected the first four families.
The families came from Honduras and Mexico, and some had been separated as far back as 2017 — months before the Trump administration formally announced its “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of families getting separated.
“They are children who were three years old at the time of separation. They are teenagers who have had to live without their parents during their most formative years,” Mayorkas said. “They are mothers who fled extremely dangerous situations in their home countries, who remained in dangerous environments in Mexico, holding out hope to reunite with their children.”
Immigrant advocates welcomed the announcement, but expressed frustration at the slow pace of reunification.
“We are thrilled for the four families that are going to be reunited this week, but we are not feeling like this is a time for celebration,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who fought the Trump administration over family separation in court. “Having been doing this for four years, we know how much work is left to be done. We assume and I hope the Biden administration recognizes that as well.”
The announcement on family reunification comes as the Biden administration faces mounting criticism about its handling of the southern border — from both sides of the political spectrum. Hardliners blame the administration for encouraging a surge of unauthorized migration at the border by relaxing some of former President Trump’s immigration policies. Immigrant advocates say the Biden administration continues to send asylum-seekers back to danger in Mexico under an order put in place by his predecessor more than a year ago.
The executive director of the family reunification task force, longtime human rights advocate Michelle Brané, said the parents would be given temporary permission to enter the U.S. through a process known as humanitarian parole. Brané said more than 1,000 families have yet to be reunited, although incomplete record-keeping by the Trump administration has made it difficult to give a precise number.
Immigrant advocates believe the Trump administration originally separated more than 5,500 families. A federal judge forced the Trump administration to reunite thousands of families in 2018 — but that ruling did not help many parents who were deported before the case was filed. The ACLU is in settlement talks with the administration that would cover all of the separated families, Lee Gelernt said in an interview. Immigrant rights groups have also urged the Biden administration to provide permanent legal status, as well as support services and potential financial compensation for families that were separated.
Brané said she could not detail any settlement negotiations.
“The one thing we did agree on is that we will continue to reunify those where we can as we move forward in those negotiations,” she said. “So we hope that in the coming weeks and months, reunifications will continue until a larger formal process is announced.”