The Department of Homeland Security is asking the public for help to stop the federal government from ever again using family separation as a tactic against undocumented migrants, issuing an open request for recommendations.
More than 3,000 children were separated from their families at the US-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s short-lived “zero tolerance,” causing a political backlash, public outrage and years of litigation.
The Biden administration has been working to reunite the last remaining separated children with family members and find ways to prevent the practice in the future, forming a federal task force for the effort.
“It is unconscionable to separate children from their parents as a means to deter migration,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who leads the task force, said in a statement. “We have an obligation to reunite separated families and ensure this cruel practice never happens again.”
The appeal for public input, filed in the Federal Register this week, is part of the task force’s mandate to recommend ways to ensure that the federal government does not repeat the policies that led to separating families at the border.
The move was a welcome development for some immigration advocates, who have lobbied the Biden administration to prevent family separations moving forward.
The request for comment will allow outside groups to offer suggestions for systemic changes to border policy, according to Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy at KIND, a child protection organization that provides free lawyers for unaccompanied migrant children.
For example, she said, there’s still not “100% accurate tracking of kids and their families” when they are detained by authorities at the border.
“There’s not always good information sharing, and not always systematic ways to ensure that the kids can stay in touch with that family member or parent if they’ve been separated from them,” she said.
Although the Trump-era policy effectively ended in 2018, families are still separated in limited cases, like concern for child safety.
She also pointed out that law enforcement officers at the border often don’t have specialized training in child welfare and there is no process.
“Often, the voices of those who serve and advocate for children and families seeking safety in the US are left out when considering policy changes,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“It’s important we take action now to ensure family separation is never again used as a cruel deterrence policy,” she added.
“Getting … public participation is fine, but there should be no question at this point that the United States should never again take children away absent imminent danger to the child; otherwise we are engaging in child abuse,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union, the lead lawyer in the Ms. L v. ICE lawsuit, which ended the family separation practice.
Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, sees the appeal as a positive step.
“It’s our hope that they take this feedback and they listen to what they hear from the public and the advocacy community,” he told CNN. “It was a moral outrage when the previous administration engaged in intentional family separation, and it’s important that DHS going forward take steps to prevent something like zero tolerance from ever happening again.”
During the Trump administration, the Justice Department committed to prosecuting as many adult migrants as possible for illegally entering the US. That effort led to the separation of children from their parents and legal guardians.
The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for referring people to the Justice Department for unlawful crossings.
After an intense backlash, Trump reversed course, but children already separated remained in limbo.
Public comments, which will be accepted until January 10, will be used to help develop presidential recommendations on how to prevent the federal government from intentionally separating families as a tool of deterrence, according to DHS.
Last month, potential payouts of up to $450,000 to separated migrant families became a political flashpoint in Republican criticism of President Joe Biden’s immigration policy.
Biden’s response to the payments stressed an already fragile relationship between the government and families, according to immigrant advocate groups who work directly with them.
After Biden swatted down media reports about financial compensation for those separated under the previous administration, the Justice Department told attorneys for families who are seeking damages that settlements will not be that high, sparking confusion among attorneys and advocates about the Biden administration’s position.