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Family reunification task force shows early success, but still has a long road ahead

Lawyers working to reunite children with their parents recently announced the successful reunification of 61 families.

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Under Trump administration immigration policies, hundreds of migrant families were forcefully separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. A team of lawyers has been tasked with locating and reuniting families in the aftermath, and they’re off to a good start. 

On Wednesday, April 7, the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union released a filing detailing their recent success in locating parents of separated children. 

In the filing, the Justice Department and the ACLU told the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of California that they have reduced the number of children whose parents they have been unable to contact from 506 down to 445. 

Sixty-one parents have been found and contacted. The lawyers said that the parents of 302 of those remaining children have already been deported, while the parents of 120 children are thought to still be in the states, and location efforts are underway.

In regards to another 14 children, the lawyers explained that the government has yet to provide them with the necessary information needed to start their search, such as phone numbers for the child, parent, sponsor or attorney. 

When the team ran into difficulty finding parents, they conducted “time-consuming and arduous” on-the-ground searches that were specifically focused abroad “in the countries of origin of parents who were removed from the United States following separation from their children.” 

Advocates claim that the number of migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is in the thousands. 

The controversial policy was halted in June 2018 when the ACLU was awarded an injunction. Since that time, court-appointed lawyers have been diligently working to reunite the affected families. 

President Joe Biden issued a series of immigration-centered executive orders in February, where he directed Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security, to create a task force meant for family reunification. 

As he signed the order to establish the task force, Biden called his predecessor’s policy a “stain” on the country’s reputation. 

"By the grace of God and goodwill of the neighbors, we'll reunite these children and reestablish our reputation as being a haven for people in need," he said at the time.

Later that month, the court-appointed lawyers released a filing, stating that they whittled down the number of children for whom they were unable to locate the parents from 611 to 506. 

On March 1, Secretary Mayorkas released principles for the family reunification task force, which is managed by Michelle Brané

"We are dedicating our resources throughout the Department of Homeland Security and the federal government, and bringing our full weight to bear, to reunite children who were cruelly separated from their parents," Mayorkas said in a statement. "It is our moral imperative to not only reunite the families, but provide them with the relief, resources and service they need to heal."

Mayorkas recently recalled what had gone through his mind when he heard the cries of children who had their parents removed from them. 

“I have not heard before a pain as acute,” he said, reiterating that their plan is to ensure this pain is not felt again. 

Wednesday’s court filing represents the importance of the task force and highlights its dedicated and strenuous efforts. 

"Defendants believe that the work of the Task Force will resolve many — if not all — outstanding issues in this litigation, and Defendants look forward to working with Plaintiffs with that goal in mind," the filing reads.

A senior White House official told reporters this month that family separation cases are to be examined on an individual basis to determine the next steps. 

"The goal of the task force is one, to identify, but two, to make recommendations as to how the families can be united, taking into account the menu of options that exist under immigration law," the official said.

Advocate groups are calling for more, in terms of accountability, transparency and a true recovery from the “zero-tolerance” policy and its remaining damage. 

CNN previously reported that first lady Dr. Jill Biden would be taking an active role in the task force. The secretary of state, the Health and Human Services secretary and the attorney general will also be involved.

The “zero-tolerance” policy was officially rescinded last month in a memo sent by the Justice Department to federal prosecutors, even though it had already ended. 

It’s about time the U.S. redirects their zero-tolerance attitude towards unjust family separation, and works to restore trust, healing and equity. 

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