Biden’s approach to kids and families at the border Is both better and worse than Trump’s

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Reading immigration news in recent weeks is likely to give you emotional whiplash.

On the one hand, there are reports of the Biden administration taking steps that clear the way for parents to reunite with their children after months of separation and implementing measures that allow asylum-seekers to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to pursue their case safely in the United States rather than remaining in Mexico. But the news isn’t all good: there are also reports of Haitian families and young children being deported in the middle of the pandemic, unlicensed detention centers for kids potentially being reopened, and asylum-seekers being turned away at the border.

What gives? Is Biden doing the right thing at the border, or is he part of the problem?

The truth is the Biden administration has begun to repair some of the damage of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. But it has also doubled down on some of the worst, most extreme measures that Trump left behind.

Let’s start with the good. The Biden administration is taking important strides to reunite families who were separated under Trump’s heinous “zero tolerance” policy. The Biden administration has made it a priority to reunite every parent and child who were torn from each other’s care and has also — crucially — promised that families will be allowed to reunite on U.S. soil.

Biden also eliminated Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous conditions across the border as their court cases played out. They immediately started processing families with active pending Remain in Mexico cases, and the first of these families recently set foot on U.S. soil.

And then there’s Biden’s work on family detention. Since 2014, ICE has detained families in prison-like facilities in Dilley and Karnes, Texas and Berks, Pa. Biden is taking steps to turn that around. It was recently reported that the Berks facility had been emptied of families, and that the administration would reduce the time mothers and kids are forced to spend in the two Texas sites.

Now, the bad news. For starters, families are still getting separated, just in a different way. The Biden administration may not be systematically taking kids from parents. But the government continues to enforce a long-standing practice — which sadly predated Trump — of separating migrant children from trusted adults and relatives who are not their parents or legal guardians.

Additionally, “Remain in Mexico” may be over, but families are still forced to… remain… in Mexico. Family units and adults are still blocked at the border or forcibly expelled, unless they are already part of pending Remain in Mexico cases. That’s because Biden has continued Trump’s abusive use of Title 42. The rule allows officials to prohibit people who potentially pose a health risk from entering the country. But Trump grossly misused this rule by using the pandemic as an excuse to block essentially all asylum-seekers.

The Biden administration has indicated they will continue to use this policy, and has even started repeating specious public health arguments for the order that experts have long since debunked.

Moreover, the policy gives the government authority to expel people overseas. The Biden administration has put this into practice, sending Haitian families, including young children, on flights to their native country even while it is in the midst of a political crisis. The families are given no chance to make their case for asylum.

Finally, family detention is far from over. Despite Biden’s changes, the existing rules still permit the confinement of many families, and leave open the possibility of reviving a larger-scale use of detention later on. To end family detention, the administration needs to stop confining kids and parents under any circumstances, and permanently shut down the Berks, Karnes, and Dilley facilities.

The path forward for the Biden administration is clear: Families should be allowed to pursue their asylum cases together, freely, and on U.S. soil. They would still have to go through the same legal process to seek asylum as everyone else. It doesn’t mean “open borders”; nor does it mean — contrary to the right-wing rumor mill — that people would enter the country without COVID-19 screening. Processing at the border and showing up for immigration court dates can take place in accordance with public health rules, just like every other essential activity.

There’s no question that Biden is better than Trump when it comes to immigration. But that’s an alarmingly low bar to clear. Trump made a mockery of America’s history as a haven for the displaced and persecuted. The new president doesn’t just need to repair the damage. He has to treat migrants and asylum-seekers with the dignity that they deserve — and which we, as a nation, owe them.

Joshua Leach is public policy and communications strategist at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a non-profit advancing human rights with an international community of grassroots partners and advocates.

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