The Biden administration has identified 3,913 children who were separated from their parents at the southern border as a result of Trump's zero tolerance policy as efforts to reunite them ramp up.
Officials believe the latest official government tally released on Tuesday accounts for nearly all separation cases, but said there is still a lot of work required to undo the damage to the families.
"Children were unjustly ripped from the arms of their mothers and loved ones and forced to separate. It is no experience any family should have to live through," a senior Department of Homeland Security official said on a call with reporters. "Our efforts to reunify every family continue."
In May, the government reunited seven families, building on the work previously done by nongovernmental organizations, bringing the total number of reunited parents and children to 1,786. Another 29 families have been granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to enter the US and stay for at least three years, and are expected to be reunited this week, the senior official said.
Finding and physically reuniting the families was made harder by the lack of a comprehensive tracking system among all the government agencies involved, the official added. There were also numerous errors in the files, such as wrong dates, incorrect names, and duplicated cases.
"We took on the task of carefully reviewing the thousands of records to catch the incorrect names and other inaccuracies and ensure that no stones unturned as we work to locate these families," the senior official said. "Our efforts to reunify every family continue."
President Joe Biden's task force also took a lot of time talking to organizations and representatives for the families who had already gone through the reunification process to learn from mistakes.
"It's one thing to do these on an individual basis ... and quite another when you try to build a system that will work for many, many more cases," the senior official said. "We chose intentionally to start slow, so that we can go fast later."
The 3,913 number is lower than a previous estimate of more than 5,400 children advocates believed were separated from their parents at the border. The family reunification task force said the discrepancy stemmed from how officials identified which children qualified.
There were more than 5,400 children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which takes custody of some immigrant children, from July 2017 to January 2021. Many of them are children who traveled to the border on their own and others were minors who were separated from extended family or a parent for reasons allowed under US policies. Officials said that as they continue to go through records they expect to find some more zero tolerance policy–based separations from the more than 5,400 children in government custody at the time, but not many.
"We anticipate that there will be some zero tolerance related separations in there, but that it will not be nearly as much as the ... 3,900-plus," the senior DHS official said.
There are also 2,127 children the government suspects have been reunified with their parents, but the task force hasn't been able to confirm that independently. Some were reunited in the US and others back in their home countries.
“It is also our hope that they actually were reunified, but we just don't have confirmation of that,” the senior official said.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration was committed to the "relentless pursuit" of reuniting families separated by under former president Donald Trump.
"When we reunified the first seven families last month, I said that this was just the beginning. In the coming weeks, we will reunify 29 more families," he said.