President Biden on Tuesday announced the start of efforts to identify and reunite hundreds of families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration and remain apart years later.

President Biden signed an executive order creating a task force to reunite the families, a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise.

“With the first action today we are going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families at the border and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents,” he said.

President Biden on Feb. 2 signed three executive orders to reverse the Trump administration's immigration policies. (The Washington Post)

Administration officials did not have details on the scale or timing of the work.

They said the task force, chaired by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, would meet regularly with the president and make recommendations. The group will “work across the U.S. government, with key stakeholders and representatives of impacted families, and with partners across the hemisphere to find parents and children separated by the Trump administration,” a senior administration official said.

The Trump administration separated at least 5,500 children from their parents along the border between July 2017 and June 2018 in an attempt to deter migration. The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government over the policy, says it’s likely that at least 1,000 of those families remain separated — parents scattered mostly across Central America and children living with relatives in the United States.

“The first order of the task force will be to get a better handle on these numbers and start reuniting children with their parents,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter before it was announced.

Because of poor government record keeping, it remains unclear how many parents were deported without their children and where they are currently living — a major challenge facing any reunion effort. Attorneys and advocates have been unable to find hundreds of separated families, in some cases sending search parties into remote parts of Central America in attempts to locate them.

Many of those parents, unsure if or when they would ever be together again, have spent the past several years trying to raise their children over video calls. Some returned to the U.S. border in hopes of finding their children but were once again apprehended by immigration agents and deported a second time.

“It’s a daily horror for us who are living without our children. It’s an endless sadness,” said María, a Guatemalan mother who was separated from her 10-year-old daughter on the Arizona-Mexico border in July 2017. “All we want is the opportunity to see our kids, to be with them again.”

“I tell my daughter to have patience. ‘Very soon we’ll see each other,’ I say,” said María, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used due to threats she has faced in her home country.

Like many separated parents, she watched the U.S. election closely, believing that a Biden victory would improve her chances of seeing her daughter again. But she has since struggled to discern the Biden administration’s plan for parents like her, or any timeline for a possible reunification.

Advocates have emphasized the need not only to reunite families, but also to provide them with protection from deportation and a path to citizenship. When a court ordered the Trump administration to reunite families in 2018, many reunited parents were not given any legal status, making them immediately deportable and raising the prospect of re-separation.

“We have entrusted Joe Biden to keep his word to bring these families together and help make them whole,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a managing attorney at Al Otro Lado, which is working with 32 separated families. “That means resettling these families in the United States, giving them legal status, and resources to help them heal. We also demand accountability so that Family Separation doesn’t go down as yet another stain on this nation’s history that is never redressed.

Government officials said they had not settled on a single legal status for returning parents. They said families could receive different visas or legal protections depending on their cases.

Attorneys and advocates have raised concerns that minor charges — such as reentering the United States illegally — could be held against separated parents and stand in the way of them possibly being reunited with their children.

The task force will be authorized to evaluate family separation cases “on an individual basis, taking into account the preferences of the family and the well-being of the children,” the senior administration official said.

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the family separation lawsuit, said the creation of a task force was expected; now more concrete pledges are needed.

“What we need now is an immediate commitment to specific remedies, including reunification in the U.S., permanent legal status, and restitution for all of the 5,500-plus families separated by the Trump administration,” he said. “Anything short of that will be extremely troubling given that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate child abuse.”

It remains unclear whether the U.S. government will conduct its own searches for separated families and arrange their return to the United States, or if that work will be outsourced to nongovernmental organizations that did it independently during the Trump administration.

The task force will consist of officials across government agencies. It remains unclear how the group — or the Biden administration more broadly — will pursue demands for reparations among separated families, or how it will respond to calls to investigate former officials who were responsible for crafting the policy.

Under Biden, according to the senior official, the federal government “will not repeat the policies and practices that led to the separation of these families.”