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How the US plans to reunite more than 1,000 families that remain separated at the border

The White House announced Monday it would reunite four families that U.S. officials separated at the southern border during Donald Trump's presidency. Over 5,500 children were taken from their parents to deter illegal immigration since July, 2017. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the move, which he has called "Just the beginning."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Biden administration announced today it would reunite four families that U.S. officials separated at the U.S.-Mexican border during President Trump's time in office.

    More than 5,500 children were taken from their parents to deter illegal immigration. Those separations started in July 2017, nearly a year before the Trump administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy became official. The policy was eventually ended. The Biden administration says 1,000 families still remain separated.

    The secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, called today's announcement just the beginning of an ongoing effort to reverse those separations. And he joins me now.

    Welcome, Mr. Secretary. We appreciate your joining us.

    Four families out of about 1,000. Every family matters, of course, but tell us how you decided on those four, how were they chosen, and what was the process like getting it done?

  • Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas:

    Judy, thank you very much for having me.

    And it is absolutely correct this is just the beginning. President Biden directed us from the very first day, do everything you can to reunite these families, to bring stability and resources to them, to help them in their. We are privileged to be a part of the effort that President Biden has directed.

    These families were not chosen for any particular reason, other than the fact that these four families are the first to benefit from our acts of conscience, to really bring back, to restore humanity in the wake and in the shadow of the cruelty of the prior administration.

    These are first of many. We will reunite all of the families.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we said, every family — of course, it's important for every family.

    But if it's taking this long to do just four families, help us understand why it's so hard. What are the obstacles?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    The obstacles are many. Unfortunately, we inherited records that were incomplete, inaccurate and the like.

    But, also, what we're doing is building a foundation for a program. The American public will see families reunited at a quicker pace now that we have overcome some of the obstacles. We have a tremendous work force across the federal government, working in partnership with community-based organizations, to deliver unification to these families.

    These are sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers. We are so privileged to be a part of this effort. I think the pace is going to increase as the obstacles have been overcome, more to come, more obstacles.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And excuse me, but I'd like to read you a comment from the attorney for the ACLU, which, as you know, is behind several lawsuits filed to locate deported parents and the children they were separated from.

    His name is Lee Gelernt. And he said — quote — "Reunification is not enough. The families, especially the babies and toddlers who were deliberately abused by our government, also need permanent legal status in the United States, social services and compensation for the harm they suffered."

  • He went on:

    "There are hundreds of families who have not been — even been located," and, as I said before, "more than 1,000 still separated."

    How long is it going to take to get these 1,000 families reunited?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    Let me first, Judy, say what a formidable advocate Lee is, in terms of — and his ACLU team, in terms of vindicating the rights of these families and fighting for their reunification.

    We are actually proud to fight alongside Lee Gelernt and the ACLU team. However long it's going to take, we're going to achieve our mission of reuniting all of the families. And we're working day and night to do so as quickly as possible. That is our commitment and, quite frankly, our obligation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I saw that President Biden said last week — and I'm quoting — "We don't know yet where those kids are. We're trying like hell to figure out what happened."

    Is it the case that you don't know where most of these children are?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    We know where some are. We don't know where others are.

    Not only that. When we know where they are, and when we know where the parents are, remember, we, as a government, because of what we have inherited, because of the cruelty that precedes us, we have to convince those parents, on some occasions, to actually have the courage to come forward, given the mistrust that the prior administration has sown.

    We are bringing conscience back to the government. It will take time. We have wonderful partners to work alongside. And we are committed to the effort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Will the parents, will these families be allowed to stay in the United States? I mean, going back to Mr. Gelernt's point, will they receive social services? Will they receive permanent legal status?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    We are working towards that.

    Mr. Gelernt is correct that the families need stability. They need resources to really have the healing process work. This reunification that we are achieving — tomorrow, these four families will be reunified — this is just the beginning of that healing process. We intend to do more.

    And we're looking very carefully at what we can do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you — can you say at this point whether they will be allowed to stay in the United States?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    So, that is a legal question.

    What we have done is, we have brought them into the United States under a program called humanitarian parole to allow them to stay in the United States for a certain period of time, and we are exploring what other avenues we can utilize to have them stay here with the stability that they need. That is very much uppermost in our minds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we have reported, Mr. Secretary, these are families who tried — who were trying to enter the United States during the Trump administration.

    What about the families who tried to enter during this administration, the Biden administration? What percentage of them have been allowed to come into the country? What percentage have been turned away?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    So, those are two very, very different things, if I may say, Judy.

    One is the Trump administration's practice of intentionally separating children from their parents to deter migration. The other is what we are doing with respect to families who arrive at the border in between the ports of entry who seek to enter unlawfully during a time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    And we, because of the public health imperative, under the authorities of the CDC, to protect not only the American public, but also the migrants themselves, are exercising that CDC authority and not allowing the families to enter the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Mr. Secretary, President Biden is announcing this afternoon that he is raising the cap on the number of refugees — this is a somewhat different issue — but on refugees who would enter the United States from other countries for reasons of safety, for persecution in other — wherever their home countries are.

    Can you help us understand why this number was arrived at?

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    So, this number, Judy, this number of 62,500 is a number that represents the number of refugees that we, as a nation, will accept, to which we will aspire in this calendar year — or, I should say, in this fiscal year for the United States government.

    This reflects President Biden's unwavering commitment to our refugee program, to our proudest heritage of leading the world in refugee admissions. This number was a balance between our highest aspirations and the reality — the realities, the fact that we will also have to rebuild the refugee system because of its dismantlement in the — by the prior administration.

    So we are balancing our hopes and aspirations for people around the world who seek a legal pathway to humanitarian relief and the fact that we have inherited a system that was torn apart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will leave it there.

    Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of the Department of Homeland Security, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    Thank you for having me, Judy.

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