“They are children who were 3 years old at the time of separation. They are teenagers who have had to live without their parent during their most formative years,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said in announcing the impending arrivals on Sunday.
The four women scheduled to cross the border in Texas and California this week are among parents of some 5,500 children known to have been separated under the zero-tolerance policy officially introduced by former President Donald J. Trump in spring 2018. While most families have been reunited in recent years, more than 1,000 remain apart, mainly because a parent was removed from the United States.
Mr. Mayorkas said that he could not provide details about the families because of privacy considerations, saying only that two of the mothers had been separated from their sons in late 2017, before the Trump administration had extended the policy across the entire southwestern border.
Immigrant advocates and lawyers welcomed the decision to bring a handful of parents to the United States but said that more must be done to address the harm inflicted by the policy.
“We are pleased the Biden administration has now taken its first steps to address the harm caused by the Trump administration’s barbaric family separation practice and thrilled for the four families who will be reunited this week,” said Lee Gelernt, lead counsel in an ongoing class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union brought against the policy in 2018.
“But we certainly do not intend to take a victory lap at this point. It is not enough for these families to be reunited,” he said.
Mr. Gelernt’s team, which is negotiating with the Biden administration to settle the lawsuit, has demanded financial compensation, mental health services and legal permanent residency for all separated families, among other things.
The family separation policy was a key step in the Trump administration’s moves to crack down on unauthorized immigration. The goal was to deliver a powerful deterrence to those hoping to come to the United States, a formidable roadblock that affected even families who may have been legally entitled to asylum from persecution in their home countries.
The policy was first made public with a memo in April 2018. Later it surfaced that families had been separated as early as 2017 as part of a pilot program conducted near El Paso. All told, about 5,500 children were separated from their parents.
Under the measure, Border Patrol agents criminally charged parents with illegally entering the United States, imprisoned them and placed their children in government-licensed shelters around the country. Images and audio of children weeping after being forcibly removed from their parents drew widespread condemnation.
In June 2018, a federal judge in California ordered the government to rescind the policy and promptly reunify families, saying that the practice “shocks the conscience” and violated the Constitution.
Most families were reunited within months. However about 1,000 families remained separated because a parent had been deported, and an estimated 645 parents — in the United States or abroad — still had not been contacted by the time Mr. Trump left office.
President Biden vowed from the beginning of his presidency to make reuniting migrant families a top priority.
Within weeks of taking office, he signed a series of executive orders intended to roll back Mr. Trump’s most stringent anti- immigration policies. A central piece of his early agenda was an interagency task force, led by Mr. Mayorkas, to identify and reunite all migrant families separated at the border by the previous administration.
It has been a mammoth undertaking. Contact information for many parents is outdated or unavailable, and some parents have disappeared or prefer not to be found out of fear. The task force has managed to find about 200 out of the 645 remaining parents, and it recently reported that it is reviewing 5,600 additional files from early 2017 that could contain evidence of more separations.
“One of the things is, we don’t know yet where those kids are. We’re trying like hell to figure out what happened,” Mr. Biden said last week in an interview with NBC News.
“It’s almost like being a sleuth, and we’re still continuing to try like hell to find out where they are,” he said.
Last year, a group of nine deported parents were allowed to enter the United States to rejoin their children after the federal judge in the class-action lawsuit, Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, ordered their return. About a dozen others
managed to return with the help of private lawyers.
But these efforts faced strong resistance from the Trump administration.
“Even with a court order, bringing back parents was vigorously resisted at every stage,” said Linda Dakin-Grimm, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented a Guatemalan father who returned last year. The man had been separated from his 12-year-old daughter.
She said that the Biden administration’s decision to allow deported parents into the country signaled “the beginning of a new way that’s important. But there remains a huge lift to be accomplished.”
Mr. Mayorkas did not reveal when additional parents would be allowed into the United States to join their children but said that the arrivals this week would be the first of many.
“We are accomplishing reunifications without delay,” he said.
Michelle Brané, a veteran immigrant-rights advocate serving as executive director of the Biden administration task force, said her team has been combing through records, often incomplete, to piece together and review cases.
In addition to demands for legal residency and monetary compensation, some advocacy groups are calling on the Biden administration to consider filing civil lawsuits or even criminal charges against officials in the Trump White House who were behind either the design or implementation of the family separation policy. When asked about this on Sunday, Mr. Mayorkas said that the Justice Department was part of the reunification task force, but he did not commit to pursue investigations. “We have not excluded accountability, but our focus right now is on the reunification of the families,” he said.
Parents arriving this week will be allowed to remain in the country at least temporarily on humanitarian parole.
Lawyers familiar with the process said that the parents would be allowed to remain in the country for at least a few years, or until longer-term solutions, like green cards, are explored. Generally, people who enter the country are entitled to apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the country.
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