WASHINGTON — The White House is likely to delay its roll out of a string of executive orders on immigration, including the long-awaited announcement of a task force to reunite migrant families separated under the Trump administration, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden ran ads promising to establish a task force “on his first day as president.” In a memo outlining early executive actions, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said the Biden administration would “start the difficult but critical work of reuniting families separated at the border.” A separate planning document circulated among Biden officials indicated the immigration executive action would be unveiled on Friday.
Sources involved with the discussions say they are delayed “by at least a few days,” but declined to say what is causing the delay.
When the task force is announced, it is expected to be an inter-agency effort across the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the State Department, led by Biden’s pick to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas, according to three sources familiar with the planning.
Their focus will be on reuniting all migrant families separated at the border — not by deportations from the interior of the country — across all four years of the Trump presidency, the sources said. They will also produce a report on what led to the separations and recommend that such a policy never be repeated, though they will not conduct an investigation that could lead to criminal referrals of officials responsible, the sources said. Instead, any investigation that would require subpoenaed witnesses will be left to the discretion of the Justice Department to conduct, the sources said.
But other key details are still being worked out, such as what factors may disqualify families from being reunited and whether those who do qualify but have been deported will be given special protections, such as humanitarian relief, to come to the U.S.
All of the families separated at the border under the four years of the Trump administration, not just those separated during “zero tolerance,” will be eligible for reunification by the task force, according to three sources familiar with the planning discussions.
Nearly 3,000 migrant children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under the “zero tolerance” policy, which systematically separated children from parents whose only crime was crossing the border illegally during May and June of 2018. But before that over 1,000 families were separated in a pilot program in and around El Paso, Texas. And after June of 2018, the ACLU estimates another 1,000 families have been separated at the U.S. border.
But many of those parents have now been deported, making them more difficult to find, and if found, potentially presenting them with the difficult choice of bringing their child home to a dangerous country or allowing them to live in the United States with relatives. The task force announcement is not expected to include details on whether the families will be given special permission to come to the United States to reunite with their children.
Pro-bono groups that have so far worked to reunify families separated under the 2017 pilot program and through zero tolerance of 2018 say they have not been able to reach the parents of over 600 children and they believe two-thirds of them have been deported.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Jacob Soboroff is a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC and author of the New York Times bestseller “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.”
Geoff Bennett is a White House correspondent for NBC News.