‘Reunification Alone Is Not Enough’: Biden Task Force Finds 2,100 Children May Still Be Separated From Parents

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A woman protests family separations at the border as a coalition of activist groups and labor unions participate in a May Day march in Los Angeles for workers and human rights. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

A new report released Tuesday from the Biden administration's Family Reunification Task Force identifies 2,127 children who may still be separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That total number includes families who fall into two distinct groups, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who's representing parents in a class-action lawsuit over the forcible separations.

The first group is comprised of parents — those of 391 children — who have not been located by the ACLU and other groups through ongoing reunification efforts initiated as part of the lawsuit, according to the most recent report.

"The other group are families who have been contacted by us, but were not reunited because the Trump administration only gave them two brutal choices: remain permanently separated from your child, or have your child come back to your home country and back to the very danger from which they fled," Gelernt said. "So those are families who've been found — we know they're separated — but they need to be reunited now. And fortunately the Biden administration has agreed to reunite them."

Gelernt also said he believes the government's latest tally actually undercounts the total number of families in the second group that have already been reunified as a result of the lawsuit.

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"We do not believe those numbers accurately reflect what's happened, and we will be sharing additional information with the administration," he said. "We believe that many more people actually have been reunited. The precise figures are still something we're trying to work out."

The government's report also notes that some family members in this tally could have found their way back together on their own, and that an absence of separation records from the Trump administration has hindered some of the task force's efforts.

The 22-page report was the first update issued by the task force as part of its mandate to identify and reunify separated children with their families. To date, the federal government has reunified just seven children with their parents in the U.S., a pace many advocates have criticized as too slow.

The report said the task force plans to reunify 29 more families in the coming weeks and expects "the pace of reunifications will increase over the next few months."

In a press call Tuesday morning, Gelernt said he's optimistic that the task force will proceed more rapidly now that it has established a reunification process.

"When the president of the United States says that something is an historic moral stain on the country, then I think all red tape needs to go," he said. "There can't be any bureaucratic slowness. We just need to get this done. And hopefully that's where the administration is now, that they are going to move at a rapid pace."

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Under the task force's current process, family members — including parents or other household members of a separated child, like siblings — can apply for humanitarian parole from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, even if they have been previously deported. The agency then screens applicants for public safety or national security threats.

Attorneys with the ACLU also believe that parole process could be available to families who were initially separated and then reunified outside the U.S.

Once the parole request has been granted by USCIS, the government will facilitate the family's travel to a U.S. port of entry, according to the task force. There, family members are screened again by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, who can authorize parole for up to three years. While parole is a temporary status, it allows recipients to apply for work authorization and potentially restart an asylum application.

On the ACLU press call Tuesday, Gelernt said the ACLU is negotiating, as part of the settlement talks, for permanent legal status and compensation for the harm and suffering inflicted on the separated families.

The task force is also exploring continued support for the families, including ongoing case management services and referrals to clinical behavioral treatment services, and intends over the next two months to determine the scope of those services and find a "durable funding source," according to the report.

"The Task Force seeks to implement needed holistic support and services for reunified families so that they may benefit from behavioral health assessment and treatment," the report states. "Needed services will include housing, employment, security, legal status, food insecurity, income, language skills and interpretation, the asylum-seeking process, and discrimination."

In a joint statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who chairs the committee's Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, praised the progress the task force has made. But they said, "much more must be done to ensure that every child is swiftly reunited with their parent or legal guardian in the United States," and noted that for many families "reunification alone is not enough."

Currently, the task force is only focused on separations that were a direct result of the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, or similar initiatives. It has not yet taken up the cases of more than 1,000 separated children whose parents were deemed "unfit" by border agents because they had criminal convictions on their record, those who were "apprehended in the interior" or parents who had a communicable disease. According to the report, the task force is reviewing these cases to see if they fall under the scope of its mandate.

The next report is due in 60 days.

Read the full report here.