President Joe Biden plans to create a task force to reunite migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and unwind certain asylum restrictions in an effort to undo some of the Trump administration’s most damaging policies.
The task force, announced on Tuesday, will aim to identify the more than 500 children separated from family members who have yet to be located and will present proposals to the president and other federal agencies to help reunite those families.
The task force is to be led by Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and will include officials from DHS, the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department.
Former President Donald Trump’s family separation policy took more than 5,400 children from their parents at the border in 2017 and 2018. The goal was to deter families from coming to the U.S., through a “zero tolerance” approach, even though many were asylum-seekers with the right to pursue relief here. Instead, when they arrived at the border, the families were torn apart so the parents could be prosecuted for illegal entry while their children were sent to stay in separate facilities, in foster homes, or with other families.
Some of these children were infants and toddlers; many experienced severe trauma as a result of that separation. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics called it “government-sanctioned child abuse.”
Trump ended the policy amid public pressure nearly a year after it began, and a court-ordered the government to reunite the families. While the government reunited most of the roughly 4,000 children covered by the court order with their parents, the parents of 545 children had not yet been found as of October, according to a court filing. For some families, it was too late, as the parents had been deported back to their home countries.
Biden vowed to do more to reunite those families. He castigated Trump for the separations during a presidential debate in October.
“Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated,” Biden said. “And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
Beginning the reunification process is among Biden’s several efforts to rehaul the immigration system decimated by Trump. In his first few hours as president, Biden issued several immigration-related executive orders and proposed a new bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people in the country.
Although Biden is likely to face resistance from Republicans, immigration reform advocates and experts have applauded the president’s plans for prioritizing such matters.
Along with the new family reunification task force, Biden also launched a series of efforts to restore the U.S. asylum system by working with foreign governments to ensure that Central American refugees and asylum-seekers can obtain proper legal protections.
The administration announced it will scale back Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-issued program that has forced more than 65,000 asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico ― sometimes for years ― until their day in U.S. immigration court. It is unclear what will happen to the people currently stranded in Mexico as a result of MPP.
Tuesday’s executive order also rescinds Trump’s memorandum requiring family sponsors to repay the government if relatives receive public benefits.
The reforms also instruct federal agencies to review the public charge rule ― a seldom-used policy in place since the 1880s that allows the federal government to deny entry to immigrants, especially green card holders, who are deemed to be overly reliant on public benefits, such as cash assistance programs. Trump expanded the rule, causing fears in the undocumented community about seeking health care and vaccinations.