WASHINGTON (AP) — A Biden administration effort to reunite children and parents who were separated under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy has made increasing progress as it nears the end of its first year.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was scheduled to declare that 100 Central American children have returned home with their families. Another 350 reunifications will be announced by it after adopting measures to improve the program.
“I would have loved to have this happen much more quickly. But we are making progress and I feel like we’re gaining momentum,” said Michelle Brané, executive director of the administration’s Family Reunification Task Force.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office to reunite families that were separated under the Trump administration’s widely condemned practice of forcibly separating families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage illegal immigration.
Many factors have complicated the task force’s work, including the lack of or incomplete records about the families separated, the large number of cases and that many parents reside in remote Central American villages and are unable to trace their children, or travel to the United States, to retrieve them.
In September, the task force had reunited 50 families when the administration announced a partnership to speed up the effort with the International Organization for Migration and the creation of a web portal — Juntos.gov or Together.gov — for parents to contact the U.S. government and work through the reunification process.
Trump ordered the removal of 5,500 children from their parents, most notably in 2018, to stem the increase in illegal immigration to the U.S. and threatened them with criminal prosecutions.
Among widespread condemnation, which includes from RepublicansTrump put an end to this practice on June 2018, just days before a judge decided to stop the program. The order came in the wake of a lawsuit by American Civil Liberties Union.
Brané said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s announcement that officials believe there are still about 1,150 children whose whereabouts have not been confirmed. This number fluctuates depending on whether new information or new cases emerge.
“Obviously, this is nowhere near the end,” Brane said. “This is just the beginning of this ramp up and hopefully families will see that reunifications are happening and they will feel confident coming forward.”
Children and parents, some of whom arrived in America this week via U.S. airways, have been granted humanitarian parole. They can stay for at least three years, and then may apply to become permanent residents through asylum or other programs. These children are receiving counselling services.
Many families also brought lawsuits against federal officials.
Last week, the Justice Department informed lawyers representing families from several groups that they were withdrawing settlement negotiations after eight months. It also stated it would continue to defend every case in court.
After media reports about a settlement proposal that included payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars each to the affected persons sparked anger among Biden administration critics in Congress.