The separation of migrant children from their families is arguably one of the most visible and cruel tactics we’ve seen take place within immigration policy, leaving behind a set of challenges the Biden administration needs to revise. The Trump administration oversaw the separation of more than 5,500 migrant families, and as of the beginning of 2021, it is reported that parents of more than 600 children have still not been located. On February 2, 2021 Biden signed an executive order to address this problem and begin a reunification process for families that were targeted under Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” and pilot programs.
In 2018, the Trump Administration announced a “zero-tolerance” policy which ensured that every immigrant crossing the border unauthorized would be detained and criminally prosecuted, making no exception to parents with children. Because children are not allowed in criminal facilities where their parents were held, they were placed in Refugee Resettlement shelters miles away from their parents. This was an extension to the El Paso program implemented in 2017 where it was clear the government had no system in place to reunite families. Even though immigrant advocates continue to make efforts to reunite families, the process has been lengthy because the Trump administration had to be frequently pressured to release names and addresses and disclose all information necessary to help locate parents.
To adequately repair the damages caused by Trump’s policies, we recommend the Biden administration go further than simply unifying families. Family separation has been documented as a traumatic experience. In 2019, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported children housed in shelters away from their parents lacked mental health support and were at a higher risk for defiance, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. As a result, the Biden administration should promptly provide mental health services to children and parents once they are unified. Furthermore, the executive branch should leverage its power to grant these families parole, which would allow them to enter or remain in the United States. This has the potential to speed up reunification because families will feel safe coming forward and give them further protection from the dangerous situation they were fleeing from. Lastly, to ensure family separation doesn’t become a repeated facet of history, Congress needs to enact policy that will prohibit the use of family separation as a tactic to deter families from seeking asylum in the United States.