WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will reunite four migrant families separated during the Trump administration this week, while its reunification task force estimates that over 1,000 families remain separated, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Sunday.
The four families include at least one child who was separated from his or her parent at age 3 and at least two women who were separated from their children in late 2017 — part of a pilot program for former President Donald Trump's 2018 "zero tolerance" policy.
But the immigrant advocacy organization Al Otro Lado, or AOL, said the Biden administration is taking credit for reunifications it did very little to facilitate.
"Despite what Secretary Mayorkas would have the public believe, DHS has done nothing to facilitate the return and reunification of these parents this week, other than to agree to allow them in. The only reason these mothers will be standing at the port of entry is because Al Otro Lado negotiated their travel visas with the Mexican government, paid for their airline tickets and arranged for reunification," said Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney of Al Otro Lado's Family Reunification Project.
While the Biden administration is withholding many details about the families for privacy reasons, Mayorkas said one of them is from Honduras and another is from Mexico. Their children are in the U.S., but their parents were deported during the Trump administration, Mayorkas said.
The parents will be given humanitarian parole to come back to the U.S., said Michelle Brané, executive director of Biden's reunification task force.
Brané said the task force is "looking into longer-term status" for the parents so they could remain and work in the U.S.
Mayorkas said, "We are continuing to identify families that were intentionally separated under the prior administration."
Donohoe said finding parents who have been separated from their children and are willing to reunite with them is not difficult.
"We represent over 30 other parents who, like these mothers, were ready for return on Day 1 of the Biden presidency. DHS would have you believe that this is an incredibly complex task, yet AOL, with our limited resources, has already reunified nearly 40 deported parents with their children. There is no reason, other than lack of political will, for DHS to make these families undergo even one more day of separation and torture," Donohoe said.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pro bono attorneys who were part of a lawsuit against the Trump administration had been solely responsible for finding and reunifying families until the Biden task force was announced in February.
The lawyers have said they have still not been able to make contact with the parents of 302 children, so there is some question about exactly how many families remain separated.
The Trump administration separated more than 5,500 migrant families in 2017 and 2018 to deter family migration across the southern border. Most of the families separated under the official "zero tolerance" policy in May and June 2018 were reunited in the following months.
But many parents separated from their children before zero tolerance, during the 2017 pilot program, were deported before they were reunited, and their records were lost. Brané said there are "1,000 families that we know of that remain separated or that we believe remain separated."
The Biden administration is negotiating with the lawyers representing the families over protections for deported parents who wish to reunify with their children in the U.S.
The deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, Lee Gelernt, a lawyer representing separated families in the lawsuit, said the reunifications of four families are a start.
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"We are happy that the first four families will be reunified this week, but this is only the beginning of a very long process involving more than 5,500 children," Gelernt said.
Brané said the negotiations between the government and lawyers representing the families as part of the lawsuit have slowed the reunification process.
"This is the first group, and we have more that are in the process that we will be reviewing, so we hope that in the coming weeks and months reunifications will continue until a larger formal process is announced," she said.