Some of the biggest moments during the presidential campaign were generated by Joe Biden’s harsh criticism of President Trump over the fate of some 550 migrant children who were separated from their families as part of Trump’s border crackdown.

“Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated,” Biden said at the final debate. “It’s criminal.” The Biden campaign ran a powerful ad in swing states vowing to create a task force to reunite them with their parents.

But as the Biden team prepares to take over, it’s becoming clear that the question of how to tackle this problem will create all kinds of complexities with no easy answers.

This is driven home by a new NBC News piece that reports that the government has finally handed over new contact information to the migrant children’s lawyers and advocates that could help locate their families.

Though this comes after an infuriatingly long delay, it’s good news on its face: It could facilitate the task of reuniting these families. But there are other hidden complications.

As the NBC piece notes, the Biden transition team “has not yet committed to give parents who have been deported the option to come to the United States to reunite with their children.”

It turns out making that commitment is not a simple matter, and this opens a window on a host of hidden difficulties the Biden team will now face, as we learned when we checked in with Lee Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer who is representing the children.

Gelernt told us that advocates for the children don’t really need Biden’s new task force to do the work of finding their families. Lawyers and advocates can do that on their own, Gelernt said.

Instead, Gelernt told us, advocates hope that the Biden transition team makes a series of related commitments. Gelernt emailed:

First, allow deported parents to reunite with their separated children in the U.S. Thus far the Trump administration has largely given the families only two horrendous choices: remain permanently separated or bring their child back to the danger from which they fled.
Second, all of the families separated under the Trump administration should be given some type of legal status because of what they’ve been through.

“We have not had a meeting with the transition team about family separation,” Gelernt told us.

Gelernt added that he hopes the Biden administration will also commit to creating a fund for helping these families and to placing future evaluations involving migrant families in the hands of child welfare experts. But the first two are the keys right now.

The problem dates back to the “zero tolerance” policy the Trump administration undertook at the U.S.-Mexico border to crack down on illegal immigration, which included separating asylum-seeking families rather than releasing them while they awaited hearings. The specter of separation was supposed to deter families from trying to seek asylum at all.

Though the policy was halted by an outcry, it quickly became apparent that the administration had instituted it in a slapdash way, and this October, the ACLU said that it still had been unable to reunite 545 children with their parents.

Now the ACLU hopes the Biden administration will commit to bringing those families here as they are located, and to giving them protections.

But Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told us that doing these things will raise other complicated issues.

For instance, Meissner said, there’s the matter of what sort of legal status the administration might grant to these families, if they are permitted to reunite with children in the United States. Most likely, she said, would be for them to apply for asylum status, but that would entail going through a process that’s already backlogged and could result in some claims being approved and others denied, making some subject to having to return to their home countries.

Another possibility might be to use humanitarian parole to bring these families into the United States, Meissner said.

But that raises a question of equity, Meissner noted: If they are granted some sort of status, does that mean other migrants who have been stranded in legal limbo by the Trump crackdowns — say, migrants currently waiting in Mexico for asylum hearings — also get fast-tracked?

“These are people who have been deeply harmed, but many other people have been deeply harmed,” Meissner told us.

Another question, Meissner noted, is whether doing this might send a signal leading many more migrants to make an asylum-seeking trek, at a time when the arduous process of unwinding all the changes Trump has made to the asylum system hasn’t even yet begun. What might that produce at the border?

Meissner told us that reforming our border policies risks getting complicated by another “humanitarian emergency which will inevitably take away the political space that the new administration has to put a better system into place.”

Looming in the background, as Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti report, is the very real possibility of another wave of migration northward, including the specter of caravans, unleashed by the deepening economic downturn from the pandemic and hurricanes in Central America.

The Biden transition still has not said what it will do as these parents are located. One reason for this is that figuring all this out will be part of making that decision, and Biden hasn’t even taken power yet.

What all this suggests is that unwinding Trump’s many humanitarian horrors is going to be far more difficult than one might have hoped, and the path back to a sane immigration system is going to be littered with practical and political land mines.

Read more: