A handful of migrant families that were separated at the border by the Trump administration will be allowed to reunify in the United States this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Monday.
The four families will be the first to be reunified through a task force that was created by President Biden shortly after taking office in January.
The decision to allow migrant parents into the U.S. to reunify with their children here marks a sharp break with the Trump administration, which resisted allowing parents who were previously deported to return.
"Our team is dedicated to finding every family and giving them an opportunity to reunite and heal," Mayorkas told reporters Sunday. He did not explain how DHS selected the first four families.
The families came from Honduras and Mexico, and some had been separated as far back as 2017 — months before the Trump administration formally announced its "zero tolerance" policy that led to thousands of families getting separated.
"They are children who were 3 years old at the time of separation. They are teenagers who have had to live without their parents during their most formative years," Mayorkas said. "They are mothers who fled extremely dangerous situations in their home countries, who remained in dangerous environments in Mexico, holding out hope to reunite with their children."
Immigrant advocates welcomed the announcement but expressed frustration at the slow pace of reunification.
"We are thrilled for the four families that are going to be reunited this week, but we are not feeling like this is a time for celebration," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who fought the Trump administration over family separation in court. "Having been doing this for four years, we know how much work is left to be done. We assume and I hope the Biden administration recognizes that as well."
The announcement on family reunification comes as the Biden administration faces mounting criticism about its handling of the southern border — from both sides of the political spectrum. Hard-liners blame the administration for encouraging a surge of unauthorized migration at the border by relaxing some of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Immigrant advocates say the Biden administration continues to send asylum-seekers back to danger in Mexico under an order put in place by his predecessor more than a year ago.
The executive director of the family reunification task force, longtime human rights advocate Michelle Brané, said the parents would be given temporary permission to enter the U.S. through a process known as humanitarian parole. Brané said more than 1,000 families have yet to be reunited, although incomplete record-keeping by the Trump administration has made it difficult to give a precise number.
Immigrant advocates believe the Trump administration originally separated more than 5,500 families. A federal judge forced the Trump administration to reunite thousands of families in 2018, but that ruling did not help many parents who were deported before the case was filed. The ACLU is in settlement talks with the administration that would cover all of the separated families, Lee Gelernt said in an interview. Immigrant rights groups have also urged the Biden administration to provide permanent legal status, as well as support services and potential financial compensation for families that were separated.
Brané said she could not detail any settlement negotiations.
"The one thing we did agree on is that we will continue to reunify those where we can as we move forward in those negotiations," she said. "So we hope that in the coming weeks and months, reunifications will continue until a larger formal process is announced."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden signed an executive order that aimed to reunite kids who'd been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. This week, he starts trying to get it done. Four families will be allowed to reunite in the U.S. It's the first step in trying to undo the family separation policy that was put in place by the Trump administration. With me now is NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration. Good morning, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: What do you know about these four families?
ROSE: Well, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was asked about them on a call with reporters. He did not give a lot of details, but he did say that they hailed originally from Mexico and Honduras and that some have been separated as far back as 2017, even before the Trump administration officially announced the zero-tolerance policy at the border that led to thousands of family separations. Here's Mayorkas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: They are children who were 3 years old at the time of separation. They are mothers who fled extremely dangerous situations in their home countries, holding out hope to reunite with their children.
ROSE: Secretary Mayorkas said that these families will get humanitarian parole, which is a temporary permission to enter the country. Normally, it's given to relatives of people who are seriously ill, things like that. But Mayorkas said they're giving humanitarian parole on a case-by-case basis, which means they might not do this for every other family. And again, it is just temporary.
KING: Just temporary but, I imagine, very, very good news for these families. And yet it's only four of them. Why so few?
ROSE: Yeah, the Biden administration says these families are not easy to find. Many of the parents were deported years ago. Also, the Trump administration did not keep good records. President Biden created a task force on family reunification shortly after taking office. And these are the first reunifications to happen under that task force. I've been covering this issue for several years, and this feels like a milestone because it is such a departure from the previous administration, which had resisted allowing these parents back into the U.S. But at the same time, as you point out, the numbers are really small, especially when you consider that there are more than a thousand families that are still separated, according to the Biden administration.
KING: More than a thousand. So then what are advocates for immigrants saying about this?
ROSE: Well, they welcomed the announcement, but at the same time, they expressed frustration at the slow pace of reunification so far. Lee Gelernt is with the ACLU, which fought the Trump administration for years in court over family separation and is now pushing the Biden administration to do more for these families.
LEE GELERNT: We are happy for these four families, of course, but we are not about to start celebrating. We know how much work is left to be done. We assume and hope the administration recognizes that, as well.
ROSE: Gelernt and the ACLU are in settlement negotiations with the Biden administration over exactly what kind of relief these families will get in the long run. That could include some kind of permanent legal status, maybe also support services, possibly financial compensation. In other words, advocates want the administration to go way beyond just letting these families in with temporary status.
KING: OK, so that's what's going on this week. And then what is the longer-term timeline here?
ROSE: Well, the Biden task force head says they've agreed to continue doing family reunifications while they hammer out some of these details and that these are just the first of many reunifications to come. A more cynical take on the timing would be that the administration is eager to announce some good news about immigration. They've been getting hammered by Republican politicians who blame Biden's policies for a surge of unauthorized migrants at the southern border. And the administration is also getting an earful from immigrant advocates, who say they need to do more to get rid of his predecessor's hard line immigration policies. And they need to do it faster.
KING: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks, Joel.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.