The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using its humanitarian authority to reunite families separated in 2018 at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for unauthorized immigrants.
According to a 22-page progress report released earlier this week by a U.S. interagency task force, the relief will allow some migrant parents to enter the United States and stay for a period of 36 months.
“That's actually more than usually what is granted with humanitarian parole. But it’s not permanent status, it's temporary,” Christie Turner-Herbas, an immigration lawyer and director of special programs for the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
Legal avenues for parents deported without their children are limited. Under U.S. law, anyone deported is barred from reentry for a period of five years.
In a March interview with VOA, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said obtaining waivers to bring parents back was just the beginning.
Gelernt, who fought the “zero tolerance” policy since its inception, said advocates are fighting to help families receive a permanent relief.
“Once they are in the United States and reunified, we want any deportation proceedings the Trump administration started to be terminated, and to provide a pathway for these families who suffered so much to have permanent legal status,” Gelernt said.
But the current humanitarian relief can be renewed, and it also allows parents to receive work authorization. Families will have access to “behavioral health screenings” and treatment for “behavioral health conditions” caused by the trauma of family separation.
Turner-Herbas noted that being separated from a child during zero tolerance does not instantly give an applicant humanitarian relief.
“Each parent or family has to submit an application for humanitarian approval, and it has to be adjudicated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and they're going through a series of criteria to see that the family meets the qualifications,” Turner-Herbas said.
Those hoping to come back to the U.S. will have to go through a criminal background check and show they can support themselves financially or have a support system when returning to the country, according to Turner-Herbas.
The report indicates that 29 migrant parents are expected to travel to the U.S. in coming weeks to be reunited with their children. Only seven families were reunited in May.
Immigration advocates have criticized the pace of reunifications while also acknowledging the challenges of finding and bringing parents back to the U.S.
“We welcome these advances and urge the administration to move quickly now that processes are in place to reunify families,” Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, wrote in an email.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who serves as the chair of the task force, said the group is committed to “relentless pursuit” of family reunification.
“In close coordination with non-governmental organizations, legal, and interagency partners, the task force will continue this critical work,” Mayorkas said in a statement.
This is the first progress report from the family reunification task force created by President Joe Biden through an executive order to reunify all migrant families separated during the Trump administration.
President Biden received the report last week showing that a total of 5,636 children were separated, and 2,127 children have yet to be reunited with their parents.
“While most of the separated children and parents have already been identified, certain populations remain unknown, and their identification has been a major focus of the task force during its first 120 days,” the report noted.
Family separation made headlines in 2018, after video emerged from a detention facility of scores of sobbing children packed together and crying out for their parents.
While welcoming progress in family reunification, immigrant advocates say more needs to be done.
“We still have a lot of questions about whether every family is going to be eligible for reunification,” Turner-Herbas said. “What is their path to gaining permanent [legal] status? That's really the main question.”