President Joe Biden has pledged to reunite hundreds of migrant families separated by the government at the US-Mexico border, as the new administration aims to dismantle the core of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda.
More than 5,500 families were separated during the Trump administration’s four-year term as part of a policy that sparked worldwide condemnation and was soon abandoned. But more than two years on, immigrant advocates are still searching for more than 600 parents, while more than 1,400 others who were deported without their children have now spent years separated from their families in the countries they fled in the first place.
“They end up being left out of the story,” said Carol Ann Donohoe, managing attorney for legal and humanitarian support group Al Otro Lado, which provides aid to asylum seekers, refugees, deportees and other migrants at the nation’s southern border.
“The ones who were deported, that we know about, and getting them back with their children after we have inflicted this harm on them,” she told The Independent. “Let’s not forget this group of people … Let’s remember there were hundreds of parents deported who have still not seen their children.”
Immigration advocacy groups and civil rights organisations have urged the new administration to not just rescind the widely condemned anti-immigration agenda under the Trump administration but also recognise the harm caused by the government, give impacted families protected legal status, and end the government’s adversarial approach to immigration.
“We inflicted torture on these families, and we need to redress that,” Ms Donohoe said. “It means bringing the parents here, reunifying them, giving them a legal status – not an opportunity to try to get asylum [and] go through our horrendous adversarial court process, and add more trauma upon trauma. It should be [that] we bring them back, do everything we can to allow them to heal, and live freely in the US without fear.”
Immigration advocates and legal groups have sought to find and reunite families deported by the previous administration, while uncovering scores of changes to internal policies and enforcement under the Trump administration that have been weaponised in an already hostile and criminally focused immigration system, they say.
An inspector general report from the US Department of Justice found the “single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions” of immigrant families crossing the southern border “came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations”.
The Trump administration failed to manage the programme’s chaotic fallout, all while knowing it would result in separated families and imprisoned children, according to the report.
A separate report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that many of the children who were separated from their families at the border, after fleeing their countries and enduring dangerous journeys to the US, had suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms and other health issues.
In 2020, Physicians for Human Rights reported that asylum seekers interviewed by the organisation displayed “pervasive symptoms and behaviours consistent with trauma”.
“Most met diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, or generalised anxiety disorder consistent with, and likely linked to, the trauma of family separation,” the group said.
Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees condemned the previous administration’s “chaos, cruelty, and reckless disregard for vulnerable children in our nation’s custody” outlined in the Justice Department report.
“We know how intentional that cruelty was, we’re learning more and more how pre-planned this whole policy was,” Ms Donohoe told The Independent. “But we’re still working within that same framework. That right now is the only framework for bringing these parents back: put them before the government, the same government that also took their children away and deported them … Obviously that is untenable.”
The Trump administration also withheld names and failed to disclose information that would help find them – additional details for those families were not released until the final weeks of his term, according to ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.
The president has formally revoked the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting migrants for “illegal entry” at the southern border, which resulted in hundreds of separated families and imprisoned children in 2018.
That year, the Trump administration reported that roughly 2,700 children had been taken from their parents after entering the US under the “zero-tolerance” period. But a report a year later from the Office of Inspector General from Health and Human Services found that hundreds of others were separated, under an undisclosed pilot programme in El Paso a year before the “zero-tolerance” policy went into effect.
President Biden has vowed to stop placing asylum seekers in the Trump era’s Migrant Protection Protocols – or so-called Remain in Mexico policy – which has effectively left thousands of people stranded in potentially dangerous areas of Mexico while their claims are pending in US courts.
A group of progressive Democrats in Congress is urging the president to commit to immigration reform that not only rescinds the Trump administration’s draconian agenda but also follows a set of humane guiding principles for future policies.
US House Rep Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, drafted a Roadmap to Freedom resolution with immigration advocates that outlines a “bold, progressive, visionary north star for what humane immigration policy looks like”, she told reporters last month.
The five-pronged resolution endorsed by more than 60 civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups centres on family unity, immigrants’ access to social services, protections for front-line workers, ending police militarisation in border communities, and alternatives to detention and deportation.
The nation’s “racist, xenophobic immigration system has been broken for decades”, she added. “We need to finally leave the nation’s long history of criminalising immigration and leaving families behind.”
President Biden has revoked the ban on US entry from majority-Muslim countries, ordered a freeze on certain deportations and suspended construction of a US-Mexico border wall, among other actions aimed at undoing Trump-era policy.
He has also renewed Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), a programme that sought to provide legal status to people who migrated to the US as children – the so-called ‘Dreamers’ – which was suspended under the Trump administration. The president has also proposed sweeping immigration reform legislation to Congress that could provide a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants.
The ACLU has urged the Biden administration to commit to ending family separations and allow deported families to reunite in the US.
Under the Trump administration, the government gave families “two brutal choices: remain separated from their children or bring their children back to the very danger they fled in the first place”, the ACLU’s Gelernt said. “The Biden administration has the power to immediately ‘parole’ these families into the United States, allowing them to reunite in safety here.”
Al Otro Lodo and the ACLU have urged the Biden administration to provide protective legal status, basic services and healthcare to returning families, or risk deepening a crisis.
“This is a crime of humanity,” Ms Donohoe said. “Where does that get us if we never hold people accountable? … Our nation needs a reckoning for all these harms.”
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