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US Takes Steps to Reverse Family Separations

More is Needed to Address Trauma Caused by Trump Policies

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, watch as President Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, February 2, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Evan Vucci

When Vladimir, 9, arrived in the United States with his 19-year-old brother, Christian, immigration officials separated the siblings and sent Vladimir to a detention center for unaccompanied children. He wasn’t allowed to speak to family members or the lawyer who took his case. He had never been apart from his family before.

Vladimir is one of thousands of children the administration of President Donald J. Trump forcibly separated from their families. But he wasn’t taken from his family in 2018, when then-Attorney General Jeff Session’s “zero tolerance” policy systematically ravaged families arriving at the border, leaving many children with lasting trauma. Immigration agents detained and separated Vladimir and his brother just days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden.  

An executive order President Biden signed today begins to address the abusive family separations the Trump administration carried out by redoubling efforts to locate the parents of hundreds of children who remain separated nearly three years later.

The order is part of the president’s push to reverse some of the Trump administration’s most abusive immigration policies. It’s a welcome step, as far as it goes.

But it’s not clear the order will help kids like Vladimir—on its face, it’s limited to children separated from their parents as a result of “zero tolerance.” Well before “zero tolerance,” including under the administration of former President Barack Obama, US border agents routinely separated children arriving with grandparents, aunts and uncles, or adult siblings. President Biden should definitively disavow this practice and direct border agents to keep extended families together unless children report abuse.

The reunification task force Biden has created should recognize that making families whole doesn’t end with reuniting them. Its recommendations should reflect best practices to provide them with ongoing support to recover from trauma.

Partial compensation for the harms the government inflicted can include permanent resident status, a measure that would likely require congressional action. At the very least, these children and their families should be able to reopen their cases to apply for asylum and other protection. Such measures should also apply to reunited families who were separated and deported.

And ensuring the government never again inflicts these harms on arriving children and their families requires a full, public accounting of what happened and how. It means fully investigating the “zero tolerance” program and those involved in authorizing it, and ensuring punishment, as appropriate. And it should include an official apology.

The task force can’t implement all these sorely needed measures on its own. But it can and should recommend them.

A full reckoning will require some hard choices and the expenditure of political capital. But half-measures won’t heal the damage done to the families and to the country.

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