Nearly a month after Joe Biden announced plans to create a federal task force to track down the parents of more than 600 immigrant children who remain separated from them as a result of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, attorneys working on the issue say they have yet to be consulted by the campaign.
Reunifying families separated at the border was among the long list of executive actions the president-elect has promised to issue on his first day in office.
Biden’s announcement of a federal task force was welcome news to attorneys who’ve been saddled with the grueling task of tracking down these parents, many of whom have already been deported to their home countries while their children remain in the United States. However, with less than two months until Inauguration Day, those directly involved in this effort say they’ve yet to be consulted about any formal plans for the Biden task force.
Yahoo News has also learned that members of the Biden transition team have recently met with at least some of the social service providers responsible for the care of unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S., including those who’ve been separated from their parents at the border. However, according to one person involved in those meetings who spoke to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, reunifying separated families is not among the many issues that have been raised in the discussions so far.
The work of putting together that task force, and a plan of action for how it will deliver on that promise, appears to be yet another piece of the incoming Biden administration’s agenda that is getting delayed by President Trump’s refusal to concede the election.
More than two weeks after all major news outlets projected Biden the winner of the 2020 election, the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration has yet to “ascertain” Biden as the president-elect, the bureaucratic step necessary to begin the formal transition process. As a result, the Biden-Harris transition team has been blocked from communicating with current agency officials, as well as from accessing roughly $10 million in federal funding to begin setting up the next administration, forcing the president-elect to solicit donations to help crowdfund the transition process.
Though the transition declined to answer specific questions about the reunification task force, it blamed Trump for delaying the transition work.
“The unwillingness of Donald Trump to accept his defeat is impacting people’s lives and has the potential to stall economic relief for working families and small businesses, as well as the need to restore order, dignity and fairness to our broken immigration system,” a Biden transition source told Yahoo News. “This isn’t a game and too much is at stake for Republicans to continue this charade.”
During the course of the presidential campaign, Biden pledged that, if elected, he would immediately undo several of Trump’s most well-known immigration restrictions, such as the ban on travel to the U.S. by residents of 13 mostly African and majority-Muslim countries, or his effort to terminate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which prevents the deportation of certain qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children by their parents.
But the promise to create a federal family-reunification task force came just days before the election, following news reports last month that the government had apparently lost track of the parents of 545 migrant children who’d been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 and 2018.
Those children were among more than 1,500 who are believed to have been separated from their parents at the southern border as early as July 1, 2017, as part of a pilot program quietly implemented by the Trump administration prior to the official launch of the controversial zero tolerance policy in April 2018, which tore apart roughly 2,800 families before it was ended in June 2018. Last year a federal judge ordered the reunification of all the families separated as part of the government’s pilot program.
The continued fallout from Trump’s controversial family-separation policy became the subject of heated exchange during the final presidential debate last month, and about a week later the Biden campaign announced that “on his first day as President, Joe Biden will issue an Executive Order creating a federal task force to reunite these children with their parents.” Since then, attorneys have reported that the number of children whose parents could not be located is actually 666.
Despite the delays, attorneys and advocates remain optimistic that the incoming administration will follow through on its promise. “We know that the Biden administration knows what has happened to these families, and we anticipate that they will do everything they can to remedy the situation,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU immigrant rights project, told Yahoo News.
Gelernt is the lead attorney in an ongoing class-action lawsuit first filed by the ACLU against the federal government in June 2018 to stop the forcible separation of asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.
But Gelernt made clear that advocates also have some specific proposals they want the incoming Biden team to incorporate. “We have specific asks,” he said.
Gelernt said some of those requests “go to making the families who were separated under the Trump administration whole again, or attempt to make them whole again.”
These include allowing parents who’ve been deported to reunite with their children in the U.S. (rather than forcing them to choose between remaining separated and having their children rejoin them in their home country); granting separated parents some type of legal status in the U.S.; and creating a fund “to help the families, including with medical needs, trauma help.”
Another request from advocates, Gelernt continued, is about future policy. “We want the process for separating families changed,” he said.
Rather than giving individual immigration and border patrol officers unilateral authority to determine whether families apprehended at the border should be separated, Gelernt argued that such decisions should instead be made by “child welfare experts with judicial oversight, and only where there is objective evidence that the parent is an imminent danger to the child.”
In the meantime, the ACLU, along with a court-appointed steering committee of law firms and nongovernmental organizations, has been tasked with tracking down the members of those families — a slow and arduous process relying on batches of manually collected data the government was court-ordered to produce for the families believed to have been separated during the pilot program.
“Any [contact] information the government had, which was spotty at best, is really outdated,” said Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, one of the organizations on the court-appointed steering committee. Chavla noted that many of these families had come to the U.S. in the first place to seek protection from threats of violence in the same countries where they’ve since been forced to return, primarily Honduras, El Salvador or Mexico.
“Some people are still in hiding,” Chavla said, making them even harder to reach. She said that in addition to making thousands of phone calls to the numbers provided by the federal government, the steering committee has also set up a hotline with toll-free numbers for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States, and disseminated those numbers through letters and fliers in an effort to reach some of these parents.
One of the most successful, yet painstaking, efforts employed to track down separated parents has been through door-to-door searches conducted by Justice in Motion, another organization on the steering committee, with a network of human rights defenders on the ground in these countries. However, Chavla noted that most of these in-person searches have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jennifer Podkul is vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a pro bono legal service provider for migrant and refugee children that is also part of the steering committee currently responsible for trying to reunite separated families as part of the ACLU lawsuit.
In a call with reporters last week, Podkul echoed many of the same proposals outlined by Gelernt, as well as specific recommendations for Biden’s proposed family-reunification task force, which, she argued, should focus on working with, rather than supplanting, the existing steering committee.
Among the task force’s top priorities, Podkul said, should be to “ensure that every relevant piece of contact information for separated families in the government’s records is turned over” to the steering committee, and to provide adequate funding to increase the committee’s capacity to conduct outreach.
“There is lots of worry that [government] folks going in themselves will backfire without the trusted connections of NGOs who have been working with these families,” Podkul explained in an email to Yahoo News. Parents may be frightened to cooperate with the U.S. government unless it offers a path to U.S. residency for them, she suggested.
Among those who have been in contact with the Biden-Harris transition team is Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and an outspoken advocate of several measures aimed at repairing the damage caused by Trump’s family-separation policy. Last year, Castro and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced a bill that would, among other things, provide a legal path to U.S. citizenship for all children and parents affected by the policy, as long as they have not committed serious criminal offenses, and increase federal funding for programs to help increase affected family members’ access to legal counsel. The legislation would also grant legal status to separated parents and children currently outside the country so they can be reunited in the United States.
In addition to the proposed legislation, Castro has called for the creation of a human rights commission to investigate the zero tolerance policy, not only to ensure that nothing like it is ever implemented again but also to hold the Trump administration officials behind the program accountable. And he has proposed that the State Department take the lead on finding separated parents who’ve been deported to Central America.
“Congressional Hispanic Caucus members and staff have been in communication with the Biden-Harris transition team about our priorities, and we’re working together to build the most diverse administration in history and advance our shared values,” Castro said in a statement to Yahoo News.
Though the focus of such conversations thus far has been on who will make up the incoming administration, Castro said, “I have full confidence that President-elect Biden’s task force will reunite families separated by the Trump administration as quickly as possible once he enters office.”
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