Reuniting Separated Migrant Families, The Challenge of the Biden Administration

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    The Trump Administration will be remembered for many things, from the widespread neglect of its administration to the depth of its cruelty to the immigrant community.

    Three years after its Zero Tolerance policy was put in place, a strategy that involved the separation of parents and children as a deterrent to immigrants’ flow across the United States’ southern border, today thousands of children are separated from hundreds of parents whose whereabouts are unknown.

    Although several court orders forced the Trump administration to end its already widespread practice of reuniting families, DHS officials went so far as to withhold data that could help family attorneys find their children and parents.

    According to NBC News, ACLU attorneys said in a federal court appearance in California last week that data from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which includes information for parents and children in immigration court proceedings, was only released last week.

    “Among other things, the information includes phone numbers that had not previously been known,” the lawyers said in the filing.

    U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered last year that a steering committee of legal groups and nonprofits find missing families after the Trump administration separated parents and children crossing the border illegally in 2017 and 2018 but failed to keep track of the families it had separated.

    NBC News reported last month that the parents of 666 migrant children had yet to be found by pro bono lawyers, making the path to reunification difficult for many. The filing Wednesday said some families had been identified since then, bringing the number of parents whose whereabouts are still unknown to 628.

    “We have been repeatedly asking the Trump administration for any additional data they might have to help locate the families and are only finally getting these new phone numbers and addresses,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Unfortunately, it took the issue reaching the level of a presidential debate to move them to give us this data.

    “Everyone’s been asking whether the Trump administration has been helping to find these families. Not only have they not been helping, but they have been withholding this data forever,” Gelernt said.

    President-elect Joe Biden has said he will establish a task force to find and reunite separated families. However, his transition team has not yet committed to giving deported parents the option of coming to the United States to reunite with their children.

    For Emily Cohodes, Sahana Kribakaran, and Dylan Gee, clinical developmental neuroscientists at Yale University, Biden’s responsibility will also be about healing the deep trauma inflicted on the immigrant community, especially on children.

    “It does not take an expert to recognize that forcible separation of families at the border is a severe human rights violation,” they wrote in a column for the LA Times.

    As clinical developmental neuroscientists, Cohodes, Kribakaran, and Gee warn that the type of trauma experienced by children separated from their parents “dramatically” increases the short- and long-term risks of mental and physical health problems.

    “When the body enters fight or flight mode in response to toxic stress during childhood, it is preparing for a lifetime of more stress,” they explain. “Compounding this effect, separation from caregivers is especially deleterious in early childhood, as children rely solely on their caregivers to cope with stress. At the neurobiological level, the mere presence of a caregiver can regulate children’s stress systems by damping reactivity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that responds to stress.”

    For the specialists, the solution is for the new administration to offer all the necessary support to nonprofit immigrant rights groups, but also to implement a plan at the federal level to help reunite families.

    Similarly, they suggest that the Biden administration grant asylum to parents and caregivers of separated children to reunify families as soon as possible and to follow up with deported children who may be at risk of experiencing additional trauma by being exposed to post-traumatic stress.

    “In Biden’s first speech as president-elect, he vowed to ‘marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness … the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time,'” the specialists remember. “Thousands of children are waiting for the Biden-Harris administration to make good on its promise, and every day matters.”