Joe Biden has a lot of wrongs to right thanks to Donald Trump, but one among them must be addressed with particular urgency, as a matter of basic decency and to send a message as what kind of country we really are.
President-elect Biden, working through his newly chosen head of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, should immediately move to reunite the more than 600 immigrant children who have been separated from their parents at the border with Mexico.
Every day that goes by, “there is real harm being done to these children and their families,” Edwin C. Yohnka, director of communications at American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Sun-Times. “There’s not only an urgency in regard to that, but there’s also a moral urgency to right this wrong.”
That may be difficult.
Before his election, Biden pledged that on his first day as president, Jan. 20, he would create a federal task force to reunite every one of these immigrant children with their parents. But the process by which the Trump administrations broke up the families in the first place was terribly haphazard, involving federal agencies that did not communicate with each other and incredibly bad record-keeping.
The whole point was to scare undocumented immigrants from trying to cross the border no matter what. Minor details, such as revealing an ounce of compassion by creating a system to reunite those families one day, were brushed aside. Children were taken from parents in an ugly exercise in “zero tolerance” and, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown, given no way to track those children.
The parents were funneled into criminal proceedings overseen by the Department of Justice. The children were placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. Those two separate departments, as noted by Nan Schivone, legal director for Justice in Motion, developed no system of cross-checks.
Non-profit organizations working to reunite families say another big challenge is that they are dealing with separations that took place three years ago. Government records in those cases may be particularly out of date. And even if the children remember details about their old homes — where they came from — their parents, who often were fleeing violent situations, might not have returned to those same places after being deported.
This is an issue that hits close to home for U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former foster parent. He said he was always mindful of the trauma that had been inflicted on the immigrant children and the conditions in which they had lived.
“The state-sanctioned child abuse that occurred has to be remembered as one of the most shameful chapters in our history,” Garcia said. “We need to hold this administration accountable for these egregious actions.”
This story has faded from the headlines, as one Trump administration offense has pushed aside the next. But we remember the photos of the cages in which the children were held, covering themselves in Mylar metallic-colored blankets. We remember the headlines about children dying in U.S. custody and the allegations of sexual abuse at the detention centers.
To make matters worse, the ACLU reports, the federal government is unable to even locate about 360 of these children.
As the Trump administration departs and the Biden administration moves in, our nation must rediscover and recommit to its highest values.
This is where we start.
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