WASHINGTON — The White House said this week for the first time that it backs permanent legal status for families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration.
The new stance comes at the anniversary of a task force the Biden administration set up to help reunify family members.
"We are advocating to Congress that they provide these individuals with legal status — that requires a statutory change," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview.
"The White House is 100 percent supportive of it, as am I, and we continue to advocate vigorously for it," he said Monday.
The reunification task force was established Feb. 2, 2021. The administration has been working to unite entire families, meaning siblings of separated children would be eligible for permanent legal status if Congress passes legislation that aligns with the White House's goal.
Asked about the matter Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "We stand by Secretary Mayorkas."
Michelle Brané, the executive director of the task force, said this week that as many as 1,200 families remain separated. About 130 have been reunited since Biden took office, she said, and 400 or more reunifications are in progress.
It could be that "some of those families have reunified on their own and we just don't have documentation of that," Brané said in an interview Monday. "But we will continue to do outreach to all of those families until we find out."
More than 5,600 children were separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy and a pilot program that preceded it. Physicians for Human Rights said the separations met the United Nations' definition of "torture," and the American Academy of Pediatrics said they amounted to "government-sanctioned child abuse." As a candidate, President Joe Biden said the policy was "criminal."
Mayorkas declined to say whether the Trump administration should be held accountable for implementing the policy.
"I myself have met with some of the separated families. I learned firsthand the trauma that they endured and some continue to endure, and it is that that motivates us to make sure that any family that was separated by the prior administration is brought together again," he said.
Asked whether it is possible to reunite all of the families, Brané said she is hopeful.
"And that is still our target, and it's still our goal to reach all the families and reunify all of those who want to be reunified, who want to travel to the United States to be with their children. We are working towards that," she said.
Democratic lawmakers last year introduced legislation that would provide a pathway to permanent legal status. The bill has not advanced in the House or the Senate.