Federal Task Force Says Up to 2,000 Families Still Separated by Trump-Era Border Policy

A federal task force that works to reunite migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 families still have yet to be reconciled, the Associated Press reported.

The numbers are just estimates because of a lack of accurate records from former President Donald Trump's administration, said Michelle Brané, executive director of the Family Reunification Task Force.

The task force, which has reunited around 50 families since commencing the effort in late February, is launching a new program Monday that aims to boost the campaign to locate parents of children detained in the U.S. Many of the parents are residing in remote areas of Central America, but the program would allow them to return to the U.S. with the ability to reside in the country legally for at least three years, the AP reported.

Brané told the AP that the location and reunification process would be a "huge challenge," but the task force is "absolutely committed" to reconnecting parents and children separated by the Trump-era border policy.

"We recognize that we can't make these families completely whole again," Brané said. "But we want to do everything we can to put them on a path towards a better life."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Border Separation Protestor
The Biden administration is stepping up efforts to find and unite migrant families forcibly separated under President Donald Trump. Above, a protester holds a sign outside a closed gate at the Port of Entry facility in Fabens, Texas, where tent shelters were being used to house separated family members, on June 21, 2018. Matt York/AP Photo

The new program, which includes a contract with the International Organization for Migration to help with the often-complex task of getting expelled migrants back to the U.S., is a reflection of just how difficult it has been for President Joe Biden's administration to address a chapter in U.S. immigration history that drew widespread condemnation.

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 widespread 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.

Teen Migrants in Holding Facility
A federal task force estimates that up to 2,000 migrant families separated at the U.S. border have yet to be reunited. Above, teen migrants walk in line inside the Tornillo detention camp in Tornillo, Texas, on December 13, 2018. Andres Leighton/AP Photo