By BEN FOX, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is stepping up efforts to find and reunite migrant families who were separated at the US-Mexico border under President Donald Trump as part of a zero tolerance policy on illegal crossings.
A federal task force is launching a new program on Monday that officials say will step up efforts to find relatives, many of whom are in remote Central American communities, and help them return to the United States, where they will get at least three years of legal residence. and other aids.
“We recognize that we cannot fully replenish these families,” said Michelle Brané, executive director of the administration’s family reunification task force. “But we want to do everything we can to put them on the path to a better life.”
The new program, which includes a contract with the International Organization for Migration to help with the often complex task of bringing deported migrants back to the United States, reflects how difficult it has been for President Joe Biden’s administration. to address a chapter in the history of American immigration that has attracted widespread condemnation.
The task force has brought together around 50 families since it began its work in late February, but there are hundreds of parents, and possibly between 1,000 and 2,000, who have been separated from their children and have not been located. A lack of accurate records from the Trump administration makes it difficult to be certain, Brane said.
“This is a huge challenge that we are absolutely determined to meet to meet and do all we can to reunite these families,” she said, describing 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 decided to criminalize those who illegally crossed the southwest border. The minors, who could not be placed in criminal detention with their parents, were transferred to the Ministry of Health and Social Services. They were then usually sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else related to the family.
Amid public outrage, Trump issued an executive order ending the practice of family separations in June 2018, days before a federal judge followed suit and demanded that separated families be reunited in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
More than 5,500 children have been separated from their families, according to the ACLU. The task force provided an initial estimate closer to 4,000, but looked at hundreds of other cases.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas held a virtual appeal with reunited families last month. “He made it 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 US government to begin the reunification process. The site and an awareness campaign to promote it will be in English, Spanish, Portuguese and several indigenous languages of Central America.
Most parents are believed to be in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil. They often lack passports and the means to get to their own country’s capital, let alone return to the United States to try to enter the border.
Once parents are located from their children, the United States will work with the International Organization for Migration to help people obtain passports and other documents and return to the United States, where they will obtain permits to work, residency for three years and some support. services.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, hailed the Biden administration’s increased efforts as “an important first step,” although he believes migrants should get more than three years of residence.
“Ultimately, we need families to be given permanent legal status in light of what the United States government has deliberately done to these families,” Gelernt said.
The ACLU is in talks with the government to provide compensation to 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 congressional action, to achieve this goal. .
The contract with IOM, an intergovernmental organization, and the increased effort to find migrant relatives and help them reach the United States is initially planned for a period of one year, but could be extended if necessary.
“We will continue to look for people until we feel that we have exhausted the options,” she said.
The effort comes amid an increase over the past year in the number of migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, especially children traveling alone, in part due to crime and poverty in Central America.
As part of what the Biden administration has described as an effort to address the “root causes” of the illegal crossings, it separately announced on Monday that the government would begin to receive requests for an expanded program enabling children in Guatemala. , Honduras and El Salvador to join parents and legal guardians who are citizens or legal resident of the United States. This program was cut short under Trump.
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