The Biden administration’s “highest priority” for the southern border is to reunite migrant families that were separated, but that is proving difficult because it is taking time to review records that were “in shambles when we inherited them,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday.
“These are sometimes children as young as 3 years old,” Mayorkas said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We are addressing the needs and vulnerabilities not only of the children but of course, their mothers, their fathers, the people that make up these families.”
The records that were left behind were “inaccurate, incomplete,” and it’s taking time to verify identities, find families, arrange for travel, and “develop a process where we can systematically bring them into this country safely and begin the healing process,” Mayorkas said.
“We cannot do it alone. We rely on and work with community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations who have been doing this work for three years, ever since the cruel, inhumane policies of the prior administration began.”
Mayorkas’ comments came after his department announced that four migrant families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration are to be reunited this week.
The four families, out of more than 1,000, mark the first reunifications under President Joe Biden, who promised during his campaign that families would be brought back together.
The Department of Homeland Security has come under some criticism for only having reunified a handful of families, but Mayorkas said the process is “arduous and difficult.”
“It’s difficult to find the families, it’s difficult to identify them, to verify their identification, and it’s extremely difficult sometimes to overcome the fear that the prior administration instilled in them and have them come forward so we can indeed bring them into the United States under our humanitarian authorities,” Mayorkas said.
The announcement about the four families is “only the beginning,” he added, but it’s important to publicize them in order to “build confidence in the integrity of our effort and the sincerity of our commitment to reunite these families.”
Meanwhile, there is a wide range of conditions under which the separated children have been living in the United States, if they still remain in the country, Mayorkas said.
“Some live with relatives because they don’t have a sponsor in the United States,” he said. “Some have been separated for more than three years, and sometimes their parents are in the countries of origin, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, a tremendous distance away. It’s extraordinarily cruel and inhumane, what occurred before us.”
The administration is not yet ready to say that there are some children who will never be reunited with their parents, he added, calling the efforts by community-based organizations to bring the families back together “heroic.”
“We’re privileged to work alongside them,” Mayorkas said. “Our efforts are going to be unrelenting and we’re not prepared to say that any child will not be reunited with their parent.”
He also insisted there is a “serious” challenge, with the record numbers of children who have come across the border in recent weeks, while not calling the matter a crisis.
“We have a plan, and we know how to manage a situation like this,” Mayorkas said. “This is what we do. We are executing on our plan and it takes time.”
He noted that on March 28, there were 5,767 children in holding facilities, and their average stay was 133 hours. Now, there are about 600 people in Border Patrol stations, with an average stay of under 30 hours.
“We’ve been executing our plan,” he said. “We will continue to do so, and we have the situation with respect to the unaccompanied children under control. That doesn’t mean that the challenge is behind us. Migration is a dynamic and perpetual challenge, but this is the work that we do.”
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