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What does America owe families separated by Trump’s border policy?

The Biden administration is working to reunite children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, but it should also provide a pathway to citizenship to families traumatized by the ordeal.

Melvin Jacinto (right) in the town where he lives in western Guatemala, on March 8. Jacinto wants to try to enter the United States to reunite with his son. They were separated at the US-Mexico border in 2018.BRENT MCDONALD/NYT

Families torn apart. Kids kept in detention centers while their parents were deported back to unsafe homelands. That was the harsh reality of border enforcement during the Trump administration, and the former president’s family-separation policy has left a tragic legacy that President Biden’s new administration has only begun to undo.

Last week, the emotional stories of four family reunions put the separated families briefly back in the headlines. The families included mothers and fathers from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico who had been separated from their children at the border under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy. They included one child who was separated from their parent at 3 years old and two mothers separated from their sons during the early pilot phase of Trump’s program, in late 2017.


Their reunions were, of course, long overdue — and should be celebrated. They’re the result of an on-the-ground effort that has mostly relied on a transnational network of immigrant rights advocates and lawyers to find parents (who are mostly in Central America) and bring them to the United States to join their children, who have been raised by relatives or other guardians all over the country since 2017 or 2018.

The Biden administration has also signaled a robust intention to reunite families and launched a task force to that end. But it remains a massive undertaking: More than 1,000 families remain separated; the government has been unable to locate parents for about 450 children.

There is no question that the US government should locate and reunite these parents with their children. But the Biden administration should also go a step further. Under such unusual and exceptional circumstances, the government should provide legal immigration status to this relatively small group of parents and their children once they’ve been located, identified, and reunited.


The Trump-era policy of separating families from their children at the border was implemented as a form of deterrence: With the government prosecuting adult immigrants criminally for crossing the border illegally, and thus separating them from their children when they showed up together, other parents would think twice before attempting to enter unlawfully.

It was disorganized, chaotic, cruel, and immoral — so much so that the Trump administration didn’t even bother keeping contact information for many of the parents. That’s partly why it’s been so hard to locate deported parents. It was an already cruel policy that was compounded by even more cruelty, incompetence, or both from Trump administration officials.

So far, the Biden administration has only committed to granting limited legal protections to the families who are reunited now, such as allowing them to stay for a period of 36 months and letting the parents apply for work authorization. But that’s not enough.

These families suffered tremendous trauma as a direct result of US government policy. Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, said last week that the agency is looking into letting family units — meaning siblings and immediate family members of the separated parties — come here legally. That’s great news, but if they’re those family members going to have a chance at succeeding in American society, they should be granted permanent legal status, and thus a path to citizenship. After what our government inflicted on these families, it’s the least we can do.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.