Nearly three years to the day after the Trump administration first forcibly separated thousands of undocumented parents from their children in order to discourage others from seeking asylum, the Department of Homeland Security has begun reunifying families torn apart by the policy.
Four families, to be exact, with a few dozen more expected in the coming weeks.
The slow pace of undoing the damage caused by the Trump administration to an estimated 5,500 families has frustrated those who have been working to reunify families since “zero tolerance” first began. Advocates warn that it may take years to reunite parents and children separated by the policy—and could add to the rising crush of undocumented people seeking to enter the United States via other means.
The Biden administration announced in February that it was creating a task force in charge of reuniting families separated under “zero tolerance” and other Trump-era initiatives intended to discourage migrants from coming to the United States. On Monday, the administration announced that the first four families would be reunited on American soil later this week—out of more than 1,000 who still remain separated.
“The Family Reunification Task Force has been working day and night, across the federal government and with counsel for the families and our foreign partners, to address the prior administration’s cruel separation of children from their parents,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, chair of the task force, said on Monday. “Today is just the beginning. We are reuniting the first group of families, many more will follow, and we recognize the importance of providing these families with the stability and resources they need to heal.”
But while Mayorkas promised in an address to the Washington Conference of the Americas on Tuesday that the government was working to reunite hundreds more families “in the near future,” advocates told The Daily Beast that the slow pace of the reunifications—and the uncertainty about the fate of families once they are reunited—are deeply troubling.
“While the families SPLC represents have been reunited, they are still awaiting relief from the government. I hope that won’t get lost in the reunification stories,” said Marion Steinfels, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has represented families affected by “zero tolerance” since the policy was first implemented in 2017. “These families—especially children—have been through incredibly traumatic experiences and need counseling… It doesn’t seem there has been much action on getting them help and justice yet.”
Roughly 5,500 migrant families were separated by the Trump administration between 2017 and 2018. Most of them were separated under the infamous “zero tolerance” program—designed to deter other migrant families from seeking asylum in the United States—that criminally prosecuted all adults who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, thereby separating them from children who accompanied them on their journey.
It wasn’t just “zero tolerance” that pulled migrant families apart. Others were separated after the Department of Homeland Security ended a family case management program that kept mothers seeking asylum out of detention, a decision that predated “zero tolerance.” Still more were separated from their children after lawfully presenting themselves at ports of entry to seek asylum. Even after the Trump administration was ordered by a federal judge to cease the practice, the government estimated that nearly 250 more children had been taken from their families, most of them without any attempt to document the location or destination of their parents.
The main reason for the delay, according to those who have been working to undo the policy, is rooted in that apparent disinterest in keeping records on where parents were sent after they had been deported following separation from their children, or how they might be contacted later. Advocates told The Daily Beast that a system for tracking parents following deportation was functionally nonexistent, which means that Biden’s task force is often starting from scratch.
“One of the biggest challenges, to this day, is terrible record keeping by Trump administration officials,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the nonprofits that has worked to reunite families separated under the Trump administration since 2018. “This was a policy designed to tear families apart without so much as an afterthought as to how they might be reunited. This was not viewed as an interim effort—the end goal was family separation.”
A lack of integration in the information technology systems used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services meant that what little records that existed were totally separated, Vignarajah said. Non-governmental organizations and legal advocates have had to fight protracted legal battles for years to force an unwilling administration into sharing that data.
“We’re seeing that a significant portion of parents have already been deported,” Vignarajah said. “making it far more complicated to locate them and ultimately get in touch.”
Organizations working to reunite families have had to resort to extreme lengths to locate those families in the meantime, from massive radio campaigns to door-to-door searches for missing parents.
“They have court-appointed researchers motorbiking through rural hillside communities in Guatemala, and showing up at the courthouses in Honduras to conduct public record searches,” Vignarajah said.
The Biden administration, however, has been a willing albeit, occasionally sluggish, partner in the effort to reunite migrant families. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, believes that the administration’s approach was intended to craft a reunification process that both addresses the government’s obligations to families affected by Trump’s policies and is scalable to be applied to hundreds of families going forward.
“If they’d only had four families, could they have just gotten them in? Yes. Even if they’d had 30 families, they could have probably just found a way to quickly get them in sooner,” Gelernt said. “But I think what they were hoping to do is, even with this first tranche of families, find a process that can be replicated on a very large scale.”
Among those obligations, Gelernt said, are government funding and logistical support for travel, providing parole authorization if family members were convicted of unlawful entry, and a potential pathway to legal status in the United States—as well as potential compensatory damages for the harm caused by the Trump administration.
But tracking down parents in the first place is still a high hurdle to clear. In the years since the policy was first enacted, parents may have moved, sought asylum in another country, or even repeated their trek to the United States, making locating them even more difficult. The process is made more challenging by the fact that many of the parents affected are impoverished, may live in remote communities without access to mobile phones or the internet, and have a justified mistrust of the U.S. government.
“There was absolute trauma inflicted on the parents who were taken away from their children, in really the cruelest of terms,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of advocacy group Immigration Hub and a former advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris on immigration issues. “That absolutely has an effect… on the willingness of parents, the willingness of these family members to work with the U.S. government, because that is their last memory of the U.S. government.”
Extra manpower from the task force will help door-to-door searches in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the three countries most heavily affected by the family separation crisis, she said. But there is growing concern that after nearly three years, some parents may no longer be willing to wait another six months for the U.S. government to sort out reunification, and may instead try their own luck by returning to the United States illegally—putting their lives at risk once more in order to be reunited with their child.
“You can only wait for so long before you go,” said Tim Young, a spokesperson for LIRS. “It’s your child you’re talking about.”
Gelernt, who waged successful legal battles against the Trump administration over family separation for years, said that while he wished the Biden administration had been able to hit the ground running on family reunifications months earlier, he’s confident that the pace will increase once the initial “trial run” of reunifications is successful.
“If things fall apart, I’ll be the first to say so, and will not hold back in bashing the administration, but right now my feeling is we’re making progress,” Gelernt said.