After a federal task force announced Monday that four migrant families torn apart under former President Donald Trump will soon be reunited, rights advocates welcomed the news while also calling on the Biden administration to increase efforts to reunite children with their parents, attempt to address the harm done, and ensure that forced separation policies are never implemented again.
"We are happy that the first four families will be reunified this week, but this is only the beginning of a very long process involving more than 5,500 children," deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project Lee Gelernt, who is representing separated families in a lawsuit, told NBC News.
Describing the few planned reunions as "just the tip of the iceberg," Gelernt added to the Associated Press that "we need the Biden administration to provide relief to all of them, including providing them a permanent pathway to citizenship and care."
Four families — out of thousands — is just the beginning.
Every separated family must be reunited with resources and care to address the harms they've endured.
They also deserve citizenship and a commitment that such an atrocity will never happen again. https://t.co/yhWbSSp9iA
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 3, 2021
According to the New York Times, the four women set to cross the border in California and Texas this week and reunite with their children are from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, and "are among a group of about 35 parents the government has agreed to admit while working on a long-term solution for the remaining separated children, most of whom have been living with relatives in the United States."
As the Times reports:
Among those coming this week is a Honduran woman who was separated from her two children in the fall of 2017. The mother spent nearly two years in immigration detention in El Paso before being expelled from the country without her children.
She has communicated with them over WhatsApp video and voice calls since then.
"She has been trying to be the mother she wants to be," her lawyer, Linda Corchado, said. "All the trauma in between has made it impossible."
Up until President Joe Biden in February signed an executive order establishing the Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, the work of reuniting forcibly separated families was limited to pro bono attorneys involved in a lawsuit against the Trump administration.
The task force includes representatives from the U.S. Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and State departments. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who chairs the body, vowed that more reunions will come.
"The Family Reunification Task Force has been working day and night, across the federal government and with counsel for the families and our foreign partners, to address the prior administration's cruel separation of children from their parents," he said in a statement Monday. "Today is just the beginning. We are reuniting the first group of families, many more will follow, and we recognize the importance of providing these families with the stability and resources they need to heal."
No parent and no child should have to endure the agony inflicted by the Trump admin. This is an important step forward. Every day a child remains separated causes more trauma—our work continues until every family is reunited. #FamiliesBelongTogether https://t.co/EKczqkRHfk
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) May 3, 2021
During a call with reporters on Sunday, Mayorkas shared some details of the families who will soon be reunited in the United States, with the parents on humanitarian parole.
"They are children who were three years old at the time of separation," he said. "They are teenagers who have had to live without their parent during their most formative years."
Michelle Brané, a longtime immigrant rights advocate serving as the government task force's executive director, told reporters that there are "1,000 families that we know of that remain separated or that we believe remain separated."
"This is the first group, and we have more that are in the process that we will be reviewing," she said, "so we hope that in the coming weeks and months reunifications will continue until a larger formal process is announced."
Our immigration system is built on injustices and trauma. Families are still facing the threat of separation. We won’t stop fighting until we are ALL free.
Biden must end title 42 and Congress must pass citizenship for millions,now! We can’t wait!https://t.co/ASkRCNC5Cq
— United We Dream (@UNITEDWEDREAM) May 3, 2021
Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney of the Family Reunification Project at the advocacy group Al Otro Lado (AOL), criticized the Biden administration's framing of the upcoming reunions.
"Despite what Secretary Mayorkas would have the public believe, DHS has done nothing to facilitate the return and reunification of these parents this week, other than to agree to allow them in," Donohoe told NBC News. "The only reason these mothers will be standing at the port of entry is because Al Otro Lado negotiated their travel visas with the Mexican government, paid for their airline tickets, and arranged for reunification."
"We represent over 30 other parents who, like these mothers, were ready for return on day one of the Biden presidency," she added. "DHS would have you believe that this is an incredibly complex task, yet AOL, with our limited resources, has already reunified nearly 40 deported parents with their children. There is no reason, other than lack of political will, for DHS to make these families undergo even one more day of separation and torture."