Biden creates task force to speed return of children separated at border to their parents

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·7-min read

President Biden signed three new immigration-related executive orders Tuesday evening, including one to create a task force dedicated to reuniting migrant families that were separated at the southern border under the Trump administration.

“This is about how America is safer, stronger, more prosperous when we have a fair, orderly and humane legal immigration system,” Biden said before signing the orders in the Oval Office, where he was joined by newly confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

“I’m not making new law, I’m eliminating bad policy,” he said.

The executive orders are just the latest in a series of actions by Biden to roll back the stringent immigration policies, rules and restrictions imposed under the Trump administration — and officials in the new administration noted they would not be the last.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier in the day Tuesday that “in the coming days and weeks,” the president and his policy teams will be taking further steps “to address immigration in a humane and moral way.”

Joe Biden
President Biden signing executive orders related to immigration on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

As a candidate, Biden had promised to establish a task force on his first day in office to reunite migrant families that were separated as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which deliberately removed thousands of migrant children from their parents to discourage asylum seekers at the southwest border. More than 600 children are still in the United States while their parents have been deported to their home countries and in many cases cannot be located.

As Yahoo News reported in late November, a lack of cooperation in the transition by the Trump administration has slowed Biden’s plans.

Biden on Tuesday called the Trump administration's separation of migrant families a “moral and national shame” and said he hoped his new policy would “reunite these children and reestablish our reputation as being a haven for people in need.”

Children line up to enter a tent
Children line up to enter temporary shelter in Homestead, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

On Monday evening, Biden administration officials explained that the task force, which will be chaired by the secretary of Homeland Security, will be tasked with identifying all of the families still separated, facilitating their reunification, and developing a more humane policy toward families who cross the border seeking asylum.

Though the announcement of the executive order to create the task force was welcome news for attorneys and advocates who’ve been working to locate and reunify separated families, many questions remained unanswered Tuesday, including who exactly will qualify for reunification and what immigration benefits they will receive.

“The creation of a task force was expected but what we need now is an immediate commitment to specific remedies, including reunification in the U.S., permanent legal status, and restitution for all of the 5,500-plus families separated by the Trump administration,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. “Anything short of that will be extremely troubling given that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate child abuse.”

Gelernt is the lead attorney in an ongoing class-action lawsuit on behalf of asylum-seeking families who were forcibly separated by the Trump administration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In addition to the roughly 2,800 families who were torn apart between the official launch of the zero tolerance policy in April 2018 and June 2018, when it was ended, more than 1,500 children are believed to have been separated from their parents under a secret pilot program dating back as early as July 1, 2017.

Members of Rise and Resist
Activists in New York City protest the treatment of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers by the Border Patrol and ICE. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Last year a federal judge ordered the reunification of all the families separated as part of the government’s pilot program, and charged the ACLU, along with a court-appointed steering committee of law firms and nongovernmental organizations, with the arduous task of identifying and tracking down the members of those families. Gelernt told Yahoo News that as of the latest report submitted in court, the number of separated children whose parents have not been located was 611 — though White House officials said as many as 1,000 children could remain separated.

Asked Monday whether the reunification effort would exclusively apply to families separated under the official zero tolerance policy, a Biden administration official clarified that the executive order would define zero tolerance “broadly, to include the pilot program that was in place before.”

As for whether the task force would, as recommended by the ACLU and other advocates, grant legal status to separated parents who’ve been deported, allowing them to reunite with their children in the U.S., administration officials said each family’s case will be considered on an individual basis, taking into account the "preference of the family ... and the well-being of children."

Biden administration officials also said that the task force would be composed of government officials, including the secretaries of state and health and human services, but “the work of the task force will require consultation [and] input from individuals who have been impacted by these policies. ... The biggest challenge faced by the task force is continuing to identify the children and families that continue to be separated and then making recommendations to finally unite them.”

Organizations that have been working on the issue also want a voice in the task force’s decisions. Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, one of the organizations on the court-appointed steering committee that has been responsible for reunifying separated families until now, said she is hoping “hoping there will be the space for some kind of collaboration” between the task force and those who’ve been “engaged in this work of finding families, working toward reunification.”

“The task force is a great first step,” said Jennifer Podkul. vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a pro bono legal service provider for migrant and refugee children that is also part of the steering committee.

While Podkul said she thinks “imperative that they offer parents the ability to stay and be reunified in the United States,” she said she was “really happy” to see that the task force would include officials from the DHS, the HHS and the State Department, noting that the lack of communication between these agencies has hampered efforts to locate parents who have been deported to reunite them with their children.

Members of the activist group Rise and Resist
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Zero tolerance was one of many punitive policies implemented by the Trump administration to curb the flow of asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. Another executive order by Biden aims to replace them with a “comprehensive three-part plan for safe, lawful, and orderly migration in the region,” according to a fact sheet provided by the White House. The plan includes efforts to “confront the instability, violence, and economic insecurity that currently drives migrants from their homes,” increase opportunities for migrants to seek protections closer to home without having to make the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, and “ensure that Central American refugees and asylum seekers have access to legal avenues to the United States.”

Part of this executive order calls for the secretary of homeland security to conduct a review of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which forces asylum seekers to wait in often dangerous conditions in Mexico while their case is considered by an immigration judge in the U.S. As of January 21, the Biden administration has stopped enrolling new asylum seekers into the MPP program, but it will take time before those now waiting in Mexico will benefit from any changes.

The third order signed Tuesday calls for additional agency reviews of various other Trump-era policies and regulations that restricted access to the legal immigration system, including the controversial “public charge rule,” which penalizes green card applicants who’ve received public benefits.

“There have been four years of executive orders and presidential proclamations issued by President Trump. A lot of that is still under review,” an administration official told reporters Monday. The White House was “starting with these things right now,” the official said, but it “doesn’t mean that's the end of it.”

“You will see a lot more executive orders and presidential proclamations from President Biden in the future.”

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