“It is it a huge challenge that we are absolutely committed to following through to meet and to do whatever we can to reunify these families," she said as she outlined the new program in an interview with The Associated Press.
The Trump administration separated thousands of migrant parents from their children in 2017 and 2018 as it moved to criminally prosecute people for illegally crossing the southwest border. Minors, who could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. They were then typically sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else with a connection to the family.
Amid public outrage, Trump issued an executive order halting the practice of family separations in June 2018, days before a federal judge did the same and demanded that separated families be reunited in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
More than 5,500 children were separated from their families, according to the ACLU. The task force came up with an initial estimate closer to 4,000 but has been examining hundreds of other cases.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas held a virtual call with reunited families last month. “He made it very clear that an apology is not enough, that we really need to do a lot more for them and we recognize that," Brané said.
The new program includes a web portal that will allow parents to contact the U.S. government to begin the process of reunification. The site and an outreach campaign to promote it will be in English, Spanish, Portuguese and several indigenous languages of Central America.
Most of the parents are believed to be in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil. They often lack passports and the means to travel to their own country's capital, let alone return to the U.S. to try to gain entry at the border.
Once parents who were separated from their children are located, the U.S. will work with the International Organization for Migration to help people get passports and other documents and return to the United States, where they will get work permits, residency for three years and some support services.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s immigrant rights project, welcomed the Biden administration’s expanded efforts as “an important first step," though he believes migrants should get more than three years of residency.
“Ultimately, we need the families to be given permanent legal status in light of what the United States government deliberately did to these families," Gelernt said.
The ACLU is in talks with the government to provide some compensation to the families as part of settlement talks.
Brané said the administration recognizes that “we need to find a better, longer-term solution to provide families with stability," but that it will take more time, and perhaps action from Congress, to achieve that goal.
The contract with the IOM, an inter-governmental organization, and the expanded effort to find migrant parents and help them reach the U.S. are initially planned to run for a year but could be extended if necessary.
“We’ll continue looking for people until we feel that we’ve exhausted the options," she said.
This effort comes amid an increase over the past year in the number of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, especially children traveling alone, in part due to crime and poverty in Central America.
As part of what the Biden administration has portrayed as an effort to address the “root causes” of illegal crossings, it announced separately Monday that the government would start taking applications for an expanded program that enables children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to join parents and legal guardians who are citizens or have legal residency in the U.S. That program was halted under Trump.
File-In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, teen migrants walk in line inside the Tornillo detention camp in Tornillo, Texas. The Biden administration is stepping up its effort to find and unite migrant families forcibly separated under President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)
Credit: Andres Leighton
Credit: Andres Leighton