This week, four families separated under former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy were the first to be reunited by organizations working with the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force.
It’s just the beginning of an effort to reunite more than 1,000 families separated from their children since 2017. And the service organizations who inherited sparse or incomplete information about these migrant children from the Trump administration say it’s a daunting task.
Vanessa Pineda, deputy program director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in their Phoenix, Arizona office, recalls her experience working with migrant children during the Trump administration.
“With the zero-tolerance policy, I was inundated with referrals for children that were coming through facilities where they had no information with them, with the adults that transferred them to the government shelters,” she said. “And so I was tasked with trying to figure out where the parents were, whether they were in country of origin, whether they were detained and then figuring out how to talk to them and finding out what it is that they wanted for their children, to return back home, to stay in the U.S., and what those options look like.”
David Sinski, executive director of Heartland Human Care Services, which operates five shelters for migrant children across the Chicago area, describes how children are moved to the care of the shelter after arriving at the border.
“Kids who are presenting at the border are mandated to only be in immigration control for 72 hours and then have to be transferred to a shelter that’s run by the Department of Health and Human Services so that the best interests of the children’s welfare is a foremost priority,” he said. “And so once children arrive to us, our goal is to first ensure that they’re feeling safe and stable in the environment. … We have a whole team of social workers, doctors, case managers that work on connecting and uniting them with their family sponsor here in the U.S. And the goal is that … they stay with us a short term and that while they’re with us, they’ve been through so much, we just want them to be kids again.”
Oscar Chacon, executive director of Alianza Americas, says that some immigrants are hopeful the Biden administration will usher in a new era.
“People are also hoping that it doesn’t go too slow,” Chacon said. “As you mentioned at the beginning, more than 1,000 cases of this nature are in place for a very initial step, and the hope is that people will be able to see their kids reunited with their families and that some form of justice be brought about in different shapes because it’s not a situation where one size fits all.”
The mental health of migrant children is a particular concern given the trauma of not only separation, but the journey leading up to it as well.
“There were children who were verbal when they were back with their parents. And then after the separation, they were no longer speaking. Children having panic attacks, children crying … if they had video calls with their parents, at the sight of their parents’ photos,” Pineda said.
And it’s not only traumatic for the children, Pineda said. “I was on phone calls as well with parents that had regretted the decision because they now were thinking they have lost their children. And some have for a very long period of time at this point,” she said.
Sinski notes that because most of the children in Heartland’s care are there briefly, their policy is not to attempt to address their traumatic experiences.
“We make sure that our staff and team of social workers and others are trauma informed and trauma trained, but … we’re careful not to open up any situation, any emotional experience that we can’t help close before their into a longer-term placement,” he said.
Chacon says the U.S. has a responsibility to repair the damage done to migrant families by the separation policy.
“I think the one way in which this can be done is by allowing the parents of these kids to be able to reconnect with their children by providing them adequate humanitarian visas to be able to settle in the U.S. support them in that process as well,” he said. “And in some instances, recognizing that actually reuniting families may not necessarily be the solution … as I said before, not one size fits all, but we need to be open to be creative in terms of delivering justice to these families and children.”