Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, stressed the symbolic importance of the first reunifications in the U.S. under Biden.
“We are beginning to turn the page on this dark chapter in American history,” Thompson said in a statement.
While the Homeland Security Department did not release details about the identities of the four families to be reunited this week, some are from Mexico and Honduras, with children as young as 3, as well as teenagers, taken from their mothers, some as far back as late 2017, attorneys confirmed to the Los Angeles Times.
Michelle Brane, executive director of the Family Reunification Task Force, told reporters the parents will be permitted to return to the United States on humanitarian parole while authorities consider whether to grant them other long-term forms of legal status, according to The Associated Press.
According to court filings, the separation of more than 5,000 children from their parents began around July 2017, the AP reported, many under a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute any adult who entered the country illegally, as well as an earlier “pilot program” in Texas — though Biden officials and attorneys now believe some separations began shortly after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Brane said more than 1,000 families remain separated, according to the AP.
Exactly how many families will reunite and in what order is linked to negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union to settle a federal lawsuit in San Diego, according to the AP, though Mayorkas promised “many more in the weeks ahead. " It was as a result of that lawsuit that a federal judge in June 2018 ordered the Trump administration to stop separating families and work toward reunification.
“We are making progress,” Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the family separation suit, said of the negotiations. “But ultimately, this is a long road, involving not just reunification but also legal permanent status, compensation and social services. We are happy for the four families who will be reunified this week, but we need to keep focused on the fact that more than 5,500 children were separated, some less than a year old.”
While Biden has frequently criticized Trump for the family separations, which prompted international outrage, his officials have asked for patience as they work to undo other restrictionist immigration policies put in place by the Trump administration, blaming the delay on what they say was a targeted dismantling of the U.S. immigration system and Homeland Security Department.
In its announcement about the family reunifications Monday, Homeland Security said members of the task force have been working “tirelessly” to establish a comprehensive database of separated families and “correct inaccuracies in the files they were provided,” calling it “novel work” across the government.
But advocates say they’ve been doing this on their own for years and have successfully brought scores of separated families back to the United States.