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Task Force Investigates Whether Trump Separated Families Earlier Than Known

Children line up in February 2018 to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. Many of these kids were taken from their parents after crossing the border illegally.
Children line up in February 2018 to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. Many of these kids were taken from their parents after crossing the border illegally.

President Biden's family separation task force is scouring through thousands of unreviewed files to determine whether the Trump administration began separating families within the first six months of coming into office.

The task force uncovered 5,600 files from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement from Jan. 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was sworn in as president, to July 2017. A Department of Homeland Security official acknowledged the task force has yet to reunite families but noted it remains committed to that goal.

"We've begun a process for reviewing and cross-checking those files," said the DHS official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity. "This is a manual process, manually going through each file, looking for clues. And it's our hope and expectation that this process will review only a few additional families. But it's important to look through them and make sure."

Concerns that the Trump administration started separating families within the first months of taking office have grown since the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that children had been separated from their parents during a pilot program before the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which was first implemented in mid-2018.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, pointed to the OIG report and reports by lawyers that there may have been separations "in significant numbers" during the first few months of the Trump administration.

"Given the magnitude of the Trump administration's family separation practice, I am not going to be shocked if there were dozens or possibly hundreds of separations in the first six months," said Gelernt, who is the lead attorney in the ACLU lawsuit.

The Trump administration separated as many as 5,500 children from their parents. More than 1,400 parents were ultimately without their children, according to immigrant advocates.

The total number that remain separated is unclear, but immigration advocates estimate at least 500 children still remain separated from their parents.

Last month, the Biden administration formed a multi-agency task force to help reunite parents and children who remain separated. The DHS official said the task force has yet to reunite any of those families but is committed to the goal.

"We have been working every day to address the tragedy that occurred when the previous administration intentionally separated families," the official said.

Gelernt said the slow start is concerning but noted there has been progress.

"We would hope that the task force would be up and running immediately and the families would have already been reunited," he said. "But we are pleased that there has been progress in the past week. It's going to be essential that that progress continue."

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