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Advocates, mental health experts pressure Biden to commit to reuniting separated families in the U.S.

The incoming administration has said it will form a task force but has not committed to how it will reunite families.
Image: Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
U.S. Border Patrol agents arrive to detain a group of Central American asylum-seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Immigrant and child advocates, including doctors and mental health experts, are increasing pressure on the incoming Biden administration to commit to a plan that would allow immigrant parents separated from their children at the border by the Trump administration to return to the United States to be reunited.

So far President-elect Joe Biden has said he would establish a taskforce dedicated to finding and reuniting separated families, but his transition team has yet to reveal detailed plans.

The Trump administration separated more than 3,000 migrant families as part of its 2018 "zero tolerance policy" and a 2017 pilot program. Recent court filings from pro-bono lawyers tasked with finding the separated families revealed the parents of 628 children who were separated under Trump administration policies in 2017 and 2018 have still not been found. And the lawyers believe two-thirds of them have been deported.

Without guaranteeing they can be returned to the U.S. and given the right to claim asylum, the parents will be forced between bringing their children back to a potentially dangerous environment or facing indefinite separation, say their lawyers as well as advocates, doctors and scientists.

In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, three clinical developmental neuroscientists from Yale University who study the effects of early-life trauma on brain development and mental health said the details of Biden's plan remain "uncertain at best."

"President-elect Joe Biden has not yet committed to allowing reunions — once the parents are found — to occur within the U.S. or, critically, to grant the reunited families asylum here," they wrote.

One of the neuroscientists, Dylan Gee, told NBC news, "This needs to happen immediately. Waiting a few months is an incredibly long time in the life of a child."

"This is based on neuroplasticity, which is heightened early on in life. This makes children particularly vulnerable to childhood trauma," Gee said. "The experience of being forcibly separated from a caregiver can have long lasting effects and children need to be reunified with their caregivers as quickly as possible to provide the best possible chance at health."

Also on Tuesday, in what was billed as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's first major speech on immigration since the election, Harris laid out no specifics for how separated families would be handled.

"These last four years have been heartbreaking and difficult ones. Children have been separated from their families. Those fleeing persecution have been denied the ability to even apply for refuge. And immigrants, even immigrants who came here legally and have been here a long time, have been subjected to attack and abuse," Harris said in pre-recorded remarks at the National Immigrant Integration Conference. "President-elect Biden and I will work to right the wrongs of these past four years and honor and advance America's heritage as a nation of immigrants."

Asked whether the incoming administration would commit to reuniting separated families in the United States, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the Biden transition team said, "Joe Biden will announce a task force to work to reunite the children and parents that the Trump administration cruelly separated at the border and work to restore our due process to provide families a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum in the United States."

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's immigrants' rights project and a lead attorney in the federal case overseeing family reunification, told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow the new administration should create special protections for separated families.

"We really need a Biden administration to not only help us find the families, but to do more than that. To allow the parents to come back to the United States to reunite with their children and to give these families some permanent status given what they've been through and create a fund to help them," Gelernt said on Friday.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center told NBC News the Biden administration has made "a clear commitment to undoing the harms of the Trump administration."

"But it is critical they not only undo those policies but make sure they are reunited and those who were deported are returned. So they are reunited and children get the mental health care they need and those individuals get the legal counsel they need to navigate the asylum system and have their fair day in court," Hincapie said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also issued a list of recommendations for the Biden transition, which incudes a plan for reunification and mental health services for separated families.

"Families that have previously been separated should be reunited and have access to trauma-informed care and mental health supports. The administration should seek to reunify all separated children with the parents. All children and parents who have been separated should receive mental health services, at no cost to them, immediately and into the future," the Academy said on Nov. 10.

Physicians for Human Rights' executive director Donna McKay said, for starters, "The families should be reunited in the United States and provided legal status."

"But after what the U.S. government subjected these families to — which constituted torture and enforced disappearance under international law — the administration is obligated to provide reparations and mental health services to the affected children and parents," said McKay who also called for "a formal apology" and an "acknowledgement from the U.S. government of the wrongs it perpetrated."

Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a member of the steering committee to reunite separated families under a federal lawsuit, said she hopes Biden will build off of efforts already in place to find and reunite families.

But, Young said of the incoming administration, "I'm not going to judge them for not having heard the specific details yet."