Originally Published in The Washington Post
Kevin Sieff and Adam Taylor - May 3, 2021
Four migrant parents who were separated from their children at the U.S. border by the Trump administration and sent home alone will be allowed to return to the United States this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Monday.
The reunions will start a process expected to stretch on for months and possibly years as separated parents are ferried back to the United States from around the world.
More than 1,000 families remain separated, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The parents were deported alone, mostly to Central America, in 2017 or 2018. Their children have since grown up with relatives or other guardians across the United States.
Some children were so young when they were taken from their parents that they barely remember them. Others have forgotten the Indigenous dialects in which they once spoke to their parents.
“Today is just the beginning,” Mayorkas said in a statement Monday. “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.”
President Biden campaigned last year on promises to reunite families separated by a policy he called “criminal.”
Mayorkas, speaking to reporters ahead of the announcement, said four families will be reunited. Two include mothers — one Honduran, one Mexican — who were separated from their children in late 2017.
Some of the children who will be reunited with their parents this week were as young as 3 when they were separated.
The Trump administration formally implemented its “zero tolerance” policy from April to June 2018, when a federal judge ordered it halted and demanded that separated families be reunited. But it later emerged that the administration had been separating families regularly through much of 2017, and that many of the parents had already been deported without their children. Government documents show that more than 5,500 children were separated from their parents in 2017 and 2018.
The government did not collect or keep contact information for many of the families it separated. In many cases, parents were deported and effectively vanished.
Some parents were given the choice to reunite with their children back in their home countries, and weighed that option against the threats the children would face if they returned. Many parents tried to stay connected to their children over video calls.
“I’m not sure how much he remembers me,” said one mother who will be reunited with her child this week.
The 26-year-old Honduran woman has not yet told her son, now 6 and living in Texas, that she will be returning to the United States this week. She’s worried that something could go wrong and his hopes could be dashed.
“I’m so, so happy,” she said, “but I’m also nervous.”
Mexican migrant deaths in the U.S. have surged during the pandemic. Getting bodies home is a challenge.
Mayorkas, who is leading the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force, said the group 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.”
But the process has not been simple. For months it remained unclear what kind of legal status returning parents would receive, or how they would travel from remote villages in Central America to the United States. Who would apply for their passports? Could they bring other family members with them?
Even finding some of the separated parents has proved difficult. Lawyers representing the families still have not located 465 parents, many of whom were probably deported alone to Central America. Searches continue across the region.
The administration worked with about 10 lawyers and advocates to select 36 families from across Mexico and Central America to be reunited with their children in the United States over the next several weeks. Those families are part of a trial run, meant to prepare the federal government for hundreds of future reunifications, an effort unlike anything the United States has attempted.
In recent weeks, members of the 10-person group began calling a handful of separated parents. Were they ready to be with their children in the United States?
Some parents were in disbelief. Ann Garcia, a staff lawyer with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and a member of the group, remembers her call with one Guatemalan mother.
“She said, ‘Why did you choose me?’ When we explained, she said, ‘I’m grateful to you, the government and God for choosing me.’ ”
The reason many Guatemalans are coming to the border? A profound hunger crisis.
Lawyers and advocates have been working with the government to guarantee legal status for returning parents so they can’t be re-separated from their children.
“We’re looking at the tip of the iceberg,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit against the separation policy brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018.
“The really hard part isn’t bringing in these four families, but sticking through the whole process," he said. "We need to make sure these families get permanent status, compensation and social services if they have any chance of succeeding.”
Gelernt is hoping the lawsuit settlement will include a commitment from the government to fund the hundreds of pending family reunifications, possibly contracting with nongovernmental organizations to carry out the logistics, including transportation.
This week’s reunifications have been more ad hoc, with attorneys and advocates paying for flights through nonprofit organizations such as Miles4Migrants.