Graphic via Desiree Tapia for The Copper Courier
Graphic via Desiree Tapia for The Copper Courier

Advocates see the Biden administration’s move to offer citizenship to migrant families split apart by Trump-era immigration policy as a solid first step.

Migrant families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy won a partial victory last week when President Joe Biden announced he would give them the option to remain in the US after being reunited. 

Previously, deported parents had two choices: remain separated from their children, who could stay in the US with documented relatives, or reunite with their children who would be departed too. Last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that Biden administration officials will “explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the US and to address the family needs so we are acting as restoratively as possible.” 

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It’s an option immigration lawyers and advocates have spent years working toward. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative has reunited more than 40 families since 2018. Last month in Arizona, the SPLC filed suit against the Trump administration on behalf of two families who suffered under the “zero tolerance” policy. 

“We were pleased to see this change,” Efrén Olivares, SPLC Tucson’s deputy legal director of Immigrant Justice, told The Copper Courier. Still, the zero-tolerance policy inflicted grave damage and left Biden with a lot of work to do. 

Biden’s Plan to Reunite Migrant Families

To start fixing that damage, the White House established a task force in February dedicated to identifying and reuniting the thousands of separated families. Since then, the task force has reunited 105 families, according to Mayorkas. The task force is a partnership between the US, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and non-governmental organizations, law offices, community, and advocacy groups.

Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission Migrant Rights and Justice team, was recently named the task force’s executive director. Olivares said with Brané at the helm, he’s confident in the direction of the task force and the influence it will have on Biden’s policies. “One of the critical features for the task force to be successful is to have individuals with expertise in charge, not political friends,” he said. “Brané has been working with immigrant children for many years.”

While Olivares said Biden’s announcement was a good first step, he emphasizes that there is “much more work necessary to right the wrongs done to these families.” 

The Long-Term Damage of Trump’s Family Separation Policy

About 1,000 families were separated during a pilot program in 2017 near El Paso, Texas, and once the policy officially began in 2018, nearly 3,000 children were taken away from their parents. After backlash forced the Trump administration to end the policy within a few months, border officials continued to take more than 1,000 children from their families under the thinnest causes, including traffic violations and unchanged diapers. Around 2,000 children have been returned to their families, but in late 2020 lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union said they could not contact the parents of 545 migrant children. An estimated two-thirds of the parents had already been deported back to Central America.

RELATED: Family Separation Policy ‘Was Sadistic,’ Immigration Advocacy Groups Says

“Only the children who have gone through it know the full impact of this policy,” Olivares said. “When this began happening in 2018, no one had any idea how long the separations would last or if they would be reunited with their families at all. Think of the level of trauma that was imposed on these children, not to know if they would see their parents again.”

Reversing the Harm and Moving Forward

The Office of the Inspector General for Health and Human Services released a report in September 2019 that found children who experienced forcible family separation exhibited intense fear, feelings of abandonment, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. More than 4,500 complaints of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of government staff were also reported. 

“A green card is only the beginning of redress,” Olivares said. “We need to involve child welfare experts, trauma experts, and counselors for the children and parents alike.”

Brané believes the Biden administration can not only reunite families but help them heal from the trauma caused by the previous administration’s separation policy by taking responsibility as a nation. “We’ve had four years of an administration implementing policies that are focused on cruelty,” she told NPR. “We’ll never be able to completely address the harm that we’ve caused.” 

However, as Biden moves to make it right, Brané said “taking responsibility is a really critical, critical step towards healing and change.”

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