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Biden Plans Task Force to Reunite Migrant Families Separated by Trump

More than 600 children remain separated from their families due to the prior administration’s zero tolerance policy.

President Biden speaks on COVID-19 response in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 26, 2021.

President Joe Biden is planning to sign three executive orders on Tuesday, meant to dismantle a number of actions from the previous administration that will, according to one official, make the process of migration to the U.S. more humane and fair.

Perhaps the most notable of these three orders will be Biden’s call for the creation of a task force to reunite children who were separated from their families under a Trump administration policy that was called “zero tolerance.” Ostensibly put into place to deter immigration, the policy resulted in over 5,500 families being separated.

More than 600 children remain separated from their families to this day, nearly three years after former President Donald Trump, responding to immense public pressure criticizing the policy, issued an executive order ending it. Yet, even after that order was made by the former president, around 1,000 more kids were separated under the guise of their “personal safety.” What constituted keeping children safe, however, often involved minor offenses by parents or other family members, such as a parent having traffic infractions on their record or, in another instance, a parent not changing a child’s wet diaper in a timely manner.

The order from Biden on Tuesday will establish a task force, to be chaired by the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), dedicated to reuniting families that are still separated and finding the parents of children who were taken away from their families under the Trump administration policy. Although DHS will lead this effort, First Lady Jill Biden is also expected to play a part in pushing the new endeavor.

Officials within the Biden White House, discussing this new executive order, condemned the policies of the previous administration, contrasting their own values with those of Trump and his administration.

“President Trump was so focused on the wall that he did nothing to address the root cause of why people are coming to our southern border,” one senior administration official said to CNN. “It was a limited, wasteful and naive strategy, and it failed. President Biden’s approach is to deal with immigration comprehensively, fairly, and humanely.”

In spite of its unpopularity and eventual repeal by Trump, the former president continued to defend “zero tolerance” long after 2018, describing it at times as a deterrence against immigrants coming to the U.S.

Trump even tried to justify his use of the policy during a presidential debate with Biden in October 2020, suggesting that children who were separated from their families were being transported to the U.S. by “lots of bad people” and “cartels.” The comments prompted immigrant rights groups to speak out against these negative characterizations of families who had their children taken away from them.

“Fact check: Migrant children separated by the Trump administration during Zero Tolerance came with their families, not coyotes,” the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services tweeted at the time. “We know. We worked with the children who were sent to shelters after being separated.”

A second executive order that Biden plans to sign on Tuesday will direct the DHS to review a Trump-era policy that forced non-Mexican migrants to stay in Mexico, along the border with the United States, while their asylum claims were being reviewed. That policy left thousands of migrants stuck on the border, living in dangerous and destitute conditions.

The second order will also attempt to look at stemming the flow of migrants from Central American countries by figuring out ways to improve conditions for people in those areas, including ways the U.S. can help combat corruption. Additionally, it will revive a program, ended by the Trump administration, that will allow some at-risk children living outside of the U.S. to reside here.

A third executive order will review and seek to end Public Charge rules left over from the previous administration that made it harder for immigrants living in the U.S. from eventually obtaining citizenship if they had received public benefits while residing in the country.

In addition to these orders, the Biden administration will also unveil a plan to increase the number of refugees who can become eligible to resettle in the U.S. Under Obama, that number was up to 110,000 in 2017. Trump capped it down to just 15,000 during his time in office, the lowest numbers seen since World War II.

While Biden’s executive orders and actions on immigration policy are a welcome change for some (signaling a stark departure from his predecessor’s methods and views on the subject), they could also be viewed as being largely symbolic, at least for right now. A number of his orders on Tuesday do not immediately dismantle Trump’s immigration policies, producing “reviews” of them rather than taking direct action to remove or replace what has been implemented over the past four years.

This is true, for example, on the program that the former president put into place requiring U.S. asylum seekers from Central America to remain on the Mexico side of the border while their claims get processed, a point that one official in the Biden administration seemed to admit to during a press call on Monday.

“The situation at the border will not transform overnight,” that official acknowledged.

Even the task force on reuniting families that Biden plans to create does not have a definitive blueprint for how it’s going to do so, and it’s unclear as of this moment how the president’s plan will result in better outcomes than the previous administration’s efforts produced.

On the day he was inaugurated, Biden also promised to produce a bill that would provide a pathway for millions of current U.S. residents without legal status the opportunity to gain citizenship rights within eight years. That bill has not yet materialized.

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