Biden reunites separated families but immigration challenges remain

Volume of arrivals at US-Mexico border putting extreme pressure on system

Honduran immigrant Nani (10) is greeted by her aunt Saiyda Gonzalez upon her arrival to Louisville, Kentucky. The unaccompanied minor had been released that day from US Health and Human Services custody after spending nearly eight weeks in shelters. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

This week, newspapers and websites in the United States carried heart-warming photographs of estranged family members reuniting.

In San Ysidro, southern California, Sandra Ortiz hugged her son Byran for the first time in more than 3½ years. She had been separated from him at the border and deported back to Mexico in 2017 under a Trump administration policy designed to deter illegal border crossings.

Later on Tuesday, Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe from Honduras surprised her two sons at their aunt's home in Philadelphia. The family had been separated in 2017 when they were picked up by border agents in New Mexico; Gonzáles Brebe had been sent back across the border, while family members in Philadelphia took in her two sons.

Ortiz and Gonzáles Brebe were two of four parents reunited with their children this week, as part of a reunification process started by the Biden administration. Over the next several months, it is hoped that hundreds more families will be reunited.


President Joe Biden and his wife Jill identified family unification as a key priority when he assumed office.

A special reunification taskforce was established in February, aiming to reconnect families separated due to Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. According to the taskforce more than 1,000 families remain separated.

While the start of the family reunification process this week has brought some welcome headlines for the Biden administration, broader immigration challenges remain.

Pressure on system

The first few months of his presidency were overshadowed by a surge of illegal border crossings in the southwest. The volume of arrivals put extreme pressure on the system. In particular, unaccompanied minors were being held in the custody of Custom and Border Protection (CBP) for days, instead of being transferred to special facilities run by the department of health and human services (HHS), in breach of the legal requirements that children only be held for 72 hours in CBP facilities.

New figures show that the specific problem of housing children in unsuitable facilities has eased. At the end of March, 5,500 children were in CBP custody; this number has now fallen to between 500 and 750, reflecting an increase in bed capacity at the HHS. Furthermore, the average time a child is being held by custom and border agents is now 24 hours.

But the number of migrants arriving at the border is still high. While April figures are due shortly, 172,000 encounters between border police and migrants were reported in March, a 71 per cent increase on February. Of these, 19,000 were unaccompanied minors – a 100 per cent increase over February.

“The bottom line is that we have hundreds of unaccompanied children that are encountered each day,” an administration official told reporters this week. “These children are taking a dangerous journey . . . due to a variety of factors.”

The immigration issue continues to animate Republican supporters on right-wing media outlets. Fox News is devoting significant coverage to the issue.

In an interview with veteran Democratic adviser David Axelrod this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed that the issue does not preoccupy most Americans, and has reiterated the White House claim that the jump in migrant numbers is cyclical. What differentiates the Biden administration from the previous president, she says, is that Biden wants to create a "fair, orderly, and humane immigration system" (Psaki also indicated in the interview that she may step down from the role of press secretary next year).

Honduran immigrant Nani, 10, plays with her baby cousin Santiago (nine months) after moving in with her extended family on April 25th, 2021 in Sellersburg, Indiana. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

‘Northern triangle’

As the White House seeks to keep publicity around the border issue to a minimum, much of the focus on the administration's response will turn to vice-president Kamala Harris. She was tasked last month by the president with dealing with the "northern triangle" countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – in an effort to address the root causes of migration.

Harris met virtually with Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Friday to discuss the issue, and will visit central America next month.

In parallel, Biden hopes to advance his plans for comprehensive immigration reform. “For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform, and we’ve done nothing about it. It’s time to fix it,” he told lawmakers during his address to congress last month.

Biden has already sent an ambitious bill to Capitol Hill which includes a path for citizenship for millions of undocumented residents, but it is more likely that narrower efforts to address immigration matters – for example the plight of the so-called Dreamers who were brought to the US as children – are likely to succeed.

America has long struggled to agree on a comprehensive response to immigration. Seeking political agreement on such a sensitive measure is likely to be a major challenge for Biden in the coming years.