More than 600 families remain separated, with parents’ whereabouts unknown. Biden’s efforts to reunite them could be his top immigration challenge.

Migrants are awaiting word from the new Biden administration on changes to U.S. immigration policy that they hope will allow them into the country. Biden’s proposal would create an eight-year pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants. (Jan. 20)
AP Domestic
AUSTIN President Joe Biden unveiled a slew of immigration policy reversals and sweeping legislative proposals in his first week in office that were widely applauded by immigrant advocates.
But his efforts to undo one of the more controversial policies of former President Donald Trump’s administration family separations at the border might be the thorniest, advocates and attorneys said.
On his website, Biden called Trumps policy of separating children some who were infants from parents and other relatives who crossed into the U.S. without permission a moral failing and promised to immediately end the prosecution of parents for minor immigration violations that led to the separations. 
Biden has also vowed to form a task force to help reunite the more than 600 parents who remain separated from their children and whose whereabouts are unknown. Executive orders specific to this policy are expected next week. 
A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child while surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas, on June 25, 2018.
 (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)
Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, Texas, who has worked to help reunite more than 450 families, said shes been encouraged so far by what shes seen from the Biden administration.
But it may take time to fully stop border agents from separating families, she said.
As with all new policies, it takes a while to get the message down to the troops on the grounds, Goodwin said.
The Trump administration approved family separations in April 2018 as part of its zero-tolerance policy to criminally prosecute all undocumented border crossers. Though family separations occurred under previous administrations, they became widespread practice under the policy.
TV images of children locked in federal detention facility cages sparked widespread blowback and Trump rescinded the order in June 2018. Family separations continued for those children deemed to be in the custody of a harmful adult.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union sued the government and a federal judge ordered all the families to be reunited. But two-and-a-half years after the policy was banned, around 611 families remain separated and the parents’ whereabouts unknown, according to court filings. Of those, more than 300 were deported and have been difficult to locate. All told, some 5,500 families were separated during the Trump administration, though most have been reunited.
Biden officials should allow the deported parents back into the U.S. to reunite with their children and focus less on helping agencies find the missing parents, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, which filed the federal lawsuit to stop the family separation policy and force the Trump administration to reunite families. That litigation is ongoing.
The new government should also consider offering a pathway to citizenship to the thousands of families who endured the trauma of being separated, he said.
Given what the 5,500 families have been through, they deserve to be reunited and given safe refuge in the United States, Gelernt said. We owe that to these families.
Gelernt said he also hopes the Biden administration investigates how the Trump administration policy emerged in the first place. A Department of Justices Office of Inspector General report released earlier this month detailed how top-ranking Trump officials, including then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, knew of the policy’s potential detriment but implemented it anyway. 
A deep look into the genesis of the policy may also unearth new data on separated families that could help locate them, Gelernt said.
This policy was so inhumane and such a stain on the United States that we simply cant move on until we have a full accounting, he said. It will be a mistake if 20 years from now people studying our immigration history did not know exactly what happened.
Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a march and sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
 (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research institute that promotes stricter immigration control, said family separations as a widespread policy was a mistake and resulted in chaos at the border. But the government shouldn’t be held accountable for actions that were instigated by parents who broke U.S. immigration law and put their own children at risk, she said. 
“These parents set off the chain of events through their choice to come here without permission to enter,” Vaughn said. 
The task of finding parents who were separated then deported without their children has fallen mostly to advocacy groups, such as Justice in Motion, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that has used its contacts in Mexico and Central America to find parents.
The efforts, which include enlisting local human rights attorneys to venture to remote villages and track down parents using scant information, were halted for months as the coronavirus pandemic roiled through the hemisphere and have only recently picked back up, said Jeremy McLean, policy and advocacy manager with Justice in Motion. 
The group has been able to reunify “hundreds” of families but hundreds more remain separated, he said. The Biden administration should enlist groups such as his to help with the reunification process, McLean said. It should also create long-term trauma studies and assistance for the families, he said. 
“You’re talking about very young kids separated from the parents for years now,” McLean said. “Thats an incredible amount of trauma.”
Though Trump ceased family separations more than two years ago, the practice continues across the border, said Alysha Welsh, a Washington-based managing attorney with Human Rights First. Families have been regularly split up as they were placed into the Migrant Protection Protocols program, otherwise known as Remain in Mexico, a Trump-era policy that ferried immigrants to Mexican border towns to await their immigration hearing, she said. 
Also, migrant teens who turn 18 years old while in federal custody are often moved from family detention centers to an adult facility, further cleaving families, Welsh said.
Its encouraging that [the Biden administration] is taking the steps that they are, Welsh said. But there are other policies that result in family separations that still need to be addressed to make sure this isnt still happening across the board.
A child from Honduras is brought to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tuesday, July 10, 2018.
 (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
Goodwin, the Texas-based attorney, said the years she spent representing separated families were some of the toughest of her career. As cases mounted and despair from parents desperate to locate their children grew, Goodwin felt the task weighing on her mentally and physically, she said. She began experiencing short-term memory loss, a trait of secondary trauma, and considered switching legal fields. In the end, she was able to reunify all but one of her clients.
Shes hopeful Biden will rectify the practice. But the personal toll it’s taken on herself, other attorneys and scores of separated families will be harder to reverse.
Every single day it was waking up to some fresh hell, Goodwin said. I dont ever in my life want to go through that again. 
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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