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Biden task force makes progress reuniting families separated at the border

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On the campaign trail, President Biden made big promises about a humane approach to immigration, proposed solutions to fix the broken immigration system in the U.S. He signed executive orders to unravel Trump-era immigration policies that separated thousands of families, including the creation of a task force to reunite some of the families that were separated at the U.S. southern border. That task force was created a year ago today. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is in charge of that effort, and he joins me now to talk about how it's going.

Good morning.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Good morning, Leila. Thanks so much for having me.

FADEL: So let's start with this task force. Under the Trump administration, some 4,000 children were separated from their parents. Two thousand one hundred eighty-seven of them were reunited with their families before President Trump left office. And this task force was tasked with bringing these families back together - the remaining more than a thousand. It's been a year. What's the status?

MAYORKAS: Leila, we have accomplished a great deal. When we commenced our task force one year ago, what we encountered was an absence of records of the families who were separated, or incomplete or inaccurate records. And our first challenge was to actually identify the separated families. We have thus far reunified more than 120 families. We are in the process of reunifying more than 400. And we are present in the countries of origin to reach other families and encourage them to come forward.

FADEL: You know, I do think that some expected more progress than 120 children a year on.

MAYORKAS: Well, you know, we have, as I mentioned, almost 400 additional families in the pipeline. And much of the preliminary work was identifying the families in the first instance and also building the structure for them to reunify here in the United States to be able to build a system that grants them humanitarian parole, the ability to come forward, gain lawful presence in the United States, to be together again with their children.

FADEL: I just wanted to clarify what lawful presence actually means for these families.

MAYORKAS: So what that means is when we bring them into the United States, their presence here is lawful. They are lawfully present.

FADEL: But it wouldn't give them permanent status, as many advocates would want.

MAYORKAS: It would not give them status - permanent status. And we are advocating that Congress provide that permanent status. That requires legislative action.

FADEL: I did want to talk about your recent visit to the border. And I'd love to hear, you know, what concerns you heard and how you plan to address what you heard from border agents.

MAYORKAS: I traveled to Arizona and different parts of Texas and was actually in New Mexico as well to hear from them and to hear their candid observations. They expressed concerns with respect to the resources they have to do their jobs - more personnel, more and better equipment. They, of course, expressed concerns with some of the policies of this administration, and I should say, not with unanimity. That's what openness and candor are all about and what define a good organization.

FADEL: You know, I obviously have to address - there were some videos of agents who really were upset at the administration, saying they're not doing enough to secure the border. What would you say to them?

MAYORKAS: Oh, they sure were very open and candid in their expression of views.

FADEL: Yeah.

MAYORKAS: I welcome that openness. But we are very focused on the security of the border. That is one of the immigration enforcement priorities that I expressed. And we remain committed to that mission set.

FADEL: So you've said repeatedly, and the president has said, that you want to take a humane approach to immigration. And that started with doing away with the controversial Trump-era policy referred to as Remain in Mexico. It forced migrants to stay in unsanitary camps in some of the most dangerous parts of Mexico. A federal court ruled and reinstated it, and now DHS has expanded the use of the Remain in Mexico policy. What's the plan there going forward?

MAYORKAS: Leila, the court compelled us to re-implement the program, but we are doing it very differently than the prior administration. We are providing greater access to counsel. We have worked very closely with Mexico to ensure the safety and security of individuals who are remaining in Mexico while their immigration cases are pending. We have not expanded the program. I think that...

FADEL: OK.

MAYORKAS: ...I would respectfully disagree with that framing.

FADEL: Oh, I read from a spokesperson that the program was expanded after the - to comply with the federal court ruling. Is that incorrect?

MAYORKAS: I would submit that it is.

FADEL: OK.

MAYORKAS: What we have seen is a change in the population of individuals who are encountered at the border. We're seeing individuals from different countries. The Remain in Mexico policy does not discriminate according to one country or another. We take into consideration a number of different factors. But we address the population and its composition as we encounter it.

FADEL: I do want to talk about the policy known as Title 42. That's the Trump-era policy, which allows the government to immediately expel migrants in a public health crisis. The government is still leaning heavily on this policy, despite calls from the U.N. to lift the asylum restrictions in line with, quote, "legal and human rights obligations." Why is this policy still in place?

MAYORKAS: Leila, the Title 42 policy is a - it's an authority that is held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not an immigration policy. It is a public health policy. And the CDC has determined that while the pandemic is not behind us, it is a public health imperative. It is our hope that we will not need to enforce the Title 42 authority of the CDC because that will mean that we have placed the pandemic behind us.

FADEL: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas - thank you so much for your time.

MAYORKAS: Thank you so much, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "ADA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.