Legislation Would Reunite, Protect Separated Migrant Children

Legislation Would Reunite, Protect Separated Migrant Children


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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A group of Democratic senators reintroduced the Reunite Every Unaccompanied Newborn Infant, Toddler and Other Children Expeditiously (REUNITE) Act, a bill to establish a permanent system of coordination between agencies and non-governmental organizations to expedite the reunification of separated immigrant families and promote humane alternatives for asylum-seeking immigrant families.

Based on numerous recent Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Inspector General (IG) reports and internal documents and court filings, it has become clear that the Trump administration’s family separation crisis was far more calculated and extensive than previously reported and that government systems to reunify separated families remain entirely inadequate.

The administration has failed to fully comply with federal court orders to reunite families separated under the “zero tolerance” policy.

Alarmingly, the HHS IG revealed earlier this year that the administration previously separated additional thousands of children and parents or guardians with no system in place to track and reunify these families. The IG recommended “continued efforts to improve communication, transparency, and accountability for the identification, care, and placement of separated children.”

Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) are the senators behind the REUNITE Act.

“Last year, Americans were shocked to see pictures of children in cages and to hear toddlers crying out for their parents. The administration has failed to live up to their commitment to reunite families separated at the border,” says Harris. “The REUNITE Act would ensure that our government agencies have the resources they need to expedite the process of family reunification. We must do better for these children and families.”

The REUNITE Act would:

  • Require the DHS and HHS secretaries to publish guidance describing how they will reunify families. This guidance must include how to ensure sustained, no-cost contact between parents and children, access to children by legal counsel and other advocates, and unannounced inspections by child welfare organizations.
  • Require immediate reunification of children who remain separated from a parent and legal guardian with exceptions for child welfare.
  • Create presumption of release on recognizance, parole, or bond for parents of separated children.
  • Restore the Family Case Management Program.
  • Create presumption that parents will not be deported until their child’s immigration proceeding is over or the child turns 18.
  • Prohibit DHS from using information, including DNA information, obtained pursuant to this Act for immigration enforcement purposes.
  • Creates privacy protections around the use of DNA testing to establish familial relationships.
  • Requires the US attorney general, the DHS secretary, and the HHS secretary to establish the Office for Locating and Reuniting Children with Parents, an interagency office, to expedite and facilitate the reunification of children and parents separated after enter the United States.
  • Redirect $50 million in appropriations from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) for the enforcement of this Act.

“Trump’s policy to deliberately inflict trauma on the children of families fleeing persecution is a dark and evil deed that continues to this day,” says Merkley. “As a nation, we should live up to our ideals by treating families fleeing persecution with respect and decency as they await a hearing on their asylum claims. That means doing everything in our power to reunite children with their families.”

In addition to Harris, Merkley and Cortez Masto, the bill is cosponsored by Sens. Richard Blumental (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.).

“Children continue to be separated from their mothers and fathers at our southern border eight months after President Trump announced an end to his inhumane family separation policy,” says Cortez Masto. “The lack of transparency and blatant lies from this Administration continue to demonstrate that this President and his Secretary of Homeland Security cannot be trusted to bring these families back together. That’s why I’ve partnered with Senators Harris and Merkley to hold this President accountable by introducing legislation requiring the immediate reunification of children with their parents.”

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