The Biden administration has reunited 500 children separated from their parents under the Trump White House’s zero tolerance border policy, an official told The Hill Friday.
The benchmark follows nearly two years of steady work by the Biden administration, which tasked itself with reuniting an estimated more than 1,000 children who remained separated from their parents due to the 2018 Trump policy.
“Five hundred is a really important milestone. Obviously, the first step for these families is that physical reunification and going through that process,” Michelle Brané, executive director of the administration’s Family Reunification Task Force, told The Hill.
“Those are 500 individual children that are now with their parents.”
The Biden administration launched its family reunification task force weeks into taking office, pledging to contact the parents, many of whom are outside the U.S. and may no longer reside in their home country.
Outrage over the policy pushed Trump to suspend it, but not before separating more than 5,000 children from their parents.
Brané said the task force still has nearly 700 children it is still trying to reunify with their parents.
The administration in September of last year launched two sites — together.gov and its Spanish-language counterpart juntos.gov — to give families a portal to actively seek reunification.
Some 200 families are still being processed through the portal, and another 150 who have been initially contacted by the government have yet to do so. There is also a group of parents for the more than 150 children the task force has not yet been able to contact.
“We’re making progress. We have been able to contact many of the families that we had not previously had any contact with when we came into this job and into this mission. And we know that there is a lot of work left to be done. We are committed to continuing to work to find these families,” Brané said, an effort that has included visiting villages in other countries in an effort to locate the parents.
“Obviously the last cases are the hardest cases in many ways.”
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union representing those separated under the Trump policy in a class action suit, said the task force still has significant work to do.
“The Biden administration should be applauded for reuniting hundreds of families cruelly separated by the Trump administration, but unfortunately there could be more than a 1,000 families who are still separated, and we still haven’t even found 150 families, ” said Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead counsel in the case that ended the Trump family separation practice.
The Biden administration has allowed such families to temporarily reside in the U.S., offering work permits for three years to parents who were separated from their children. While they can seek to renew that status, in and of itself it is not a pathway to citizenship.
The reunification program also comes with mental health services through nonprofit partners, including sessions to prepare prior to reunification for children that have in some cases not seen their parents for four years.
That process has come with its own challenges. Reports indicate some children reunited with their parents have suffered severe emotional trauma as a result of the separation.
A study by Physicians for Human Rights indicated that the cases meet the definition of torture as defined by the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
“In the cases reviewed, it is apparent that U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering in order to punish and intimidate mainly Central American asylum seekers to not pursue their asylum claims,” the study stated.
Clinicians identified “symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its residual effects in nearly all of the parents and children.”
That includes depression, constant worry/preoccupations, frequent crying, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, recurring nightmares and overwhelming anxiety.
Four families have since launched a suit against the government, seeking damages for the trauma.
—Updated at 4:22 p.m.