As some families seek restitution for the suffering caused by former President Donald Trump’s family separation policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday acknowledged that nearly five years after the policy was first enforced, 998 children have yet to be reunited with their relatives.
On the two-year anniversary of the establishment of President Joe Biden’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, the DHS said it has reunited more than 600 children who were taken from their families under Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy, which called for the prosecution of anyone who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without going through official immigration channels.
Many children were reunited through a court process before Biden took office, but of the nearly 4,000 children who were taken from their families and sent to locations across the country with recordkeeping about their identities and whereabouts that was “patchwork at best,” according to DHS, roughly a quarter of them are still separated.
“This cruelty happened nearly five years ago,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service. “That’s an unimaginably long time for children to go without their parents.”
Many of the children who were separated arrived at the border from Central American countries, with their parents traveling to the border to seek asylum from violence and conflict — exercising a protected human right under international and domestic law.
The DHS noted that the number of families coming forward to identify themselves as having been forcibly separated continues to grow.
“We understand that our critical work is not finished,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to fulfill President Biden’s pledge to reunify all children who were separated from their families under the ‘zero tolerance’ policy to the greatest extent possible, and we continue to work diligently to incorporate the foundational principle of family unity in our policies and operations.”
The agency is currently in the process of reuniting 148 children with their families, and has contacted 183 additional families regarding reunification.
Aside from attempting to reunite families, the Biden administration said it is also meeting with recently reunified families “to hear directly from them and better understand their experiences and current needs,” including support for the trauma the federal government inflicted on them.
On Wednesday, the day before the DHS made its announcement, Selvin Argueta and his son, who is now 21, filed a federal lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the forced separation they suffered in 2018 under the policy. Argueta’s son, Selvin Najera, was 16 when they arrived at the border from Guatemala, where they had faced threats from gangs.
Argueta was deported while Najera was sent to a detention center where, the lawsuit alleges, he faced physical and emotional abuse.
Father and son were reunited in January 2020 after a federal judge ruled that Argueta’s deportation was unlawful. Their lawsuit seeks restitution for “intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, abuse of process, and harboring a minor.”
“The real world human impact of the Trump administration’s depravity still reverberates today,” said journalist Ahmed Baba.
Rights advocates have condemned the Biden administration for continuing other anti-immigration polices including Title 42, under which families are still being separated. The Texas Observer reported in November that between January 2021, when Biden took office, and August 2022, at least 372 cases of family separation were documented by the government.
“Though family separation is no longer explicitly used as a weapon in U.S. immigration policy,” wrote Erica Bryant at Vera Institute of Justice last June, “it is still a horrifying result.”
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