Less than a week after her husband was sworn into office, first lady Jill Biden told a group of young Latinos during a virtual chat that her new chief of staff “will be working” on an effort to reunify migrant children separated from their families.
The remark was followed by a series of headlines proclaiming that Biden herself would monitor or lead a task force to help the families separated under President Donald Trump. Some articles even said Biden would reunite the children.
None of that has happened.
First lady Jill Biden actually has “no formal role” in the effort, according to her office. Among lawyers and advocates helping the families, her lack of involvement reinforces a broader concern about the slow pace of reunification efforts under Biden. The administration has yet to locate additional parents or announce a specific plan to unite families, as staffers instead struggle to address another problem: a surge of unaccompanied children at the border.
In recent administrations, first ladies have taken on largely unobjectionable social causes like healthy eating, military families and online bullying (although each of those cases had their critics.) The exception to the rule was Hillary Clinton, who dove head first into trying — unsuccessfully — to overhaul health care for her husband. That ended in disaster and served as a cautionary tale for every first lady since. And yet, advocates had been hoping that Jill Biden would wade into one of the most politically fraught issues her husband faced: immigration. And they hoped she would use her outsize platform to ensure the administration makes the issue more of a priority.
“It would be enormously helpful if Dr. Biden brought her experience to bear on reuniting these families because there is a lot of work to be done and, thus far, there has been no concrete progress,” said Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union’s lead lawyer in a family separation lawsuit against the previous administration. “We hoped that the task force would be ready on day one and families would have already been reunited but it looks like this is going to be a slow process.”
Some of the advocates and lawyers for migrant families are concerned that Jill Biden backed away from the issue because the administration is facing a torrent of criticism from both the right and the left on the border problems.
“I’m a little worried it’s deprioritized or viewed as politically sensitive,” said one advocate involved in the effort.
The first lady’s office maintains she never had an official role on the issue. Her spokesperson Michael LaRosa emphasized that “The work of the task force is being led by the Department of Homeland Security. As the task force is an interagency task force, with members comprised of representatives from the relevant federal government agencies, the First Lady does not have any formal role.”
LaRosa later sent an additional comment, emphasizing that “The First Lady believes that the children taken from their parents need to be reunified with their families as soon as possible. Dr. Biden will continue to support the work of the Task Force,” and “her Chief of Staff and Assistant to the President, Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, is involved in this issue and has been in regular contact with the Executive Director of the Taskforce.”
But others in the administration have highlighted the first lady and her staff’s involvement in the issue. At a White House press briefing March 1, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas raised expectations by crediting Biden for pushing staff to act on family separations.
“The first lady has driven us to action through her personal commitment to this moral imperative,” he said. “And that moral imperative is to reunite the families and restore them to the fullest capacity that we, as the United States government, can do.”
And in January, LaRosa himself said that Reynoso would “monitor the federal reunification effort.”
Reynoso, a former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, took a trip to the border March 8 with Mayorkas at the president’s direction. But the visit was to assess the recent surge in immigrants, including migrant children. The group briefed the president last week.
President Biden created the long-awaited family separation task force, led by the DHS, in early February, with the aim of both locating parents and reuniting the families. Despite being cheered on by advocates, it has been off to a sluggish start.
In total, more than 5,500 families were separated as part of one of Trump’s most contentious immigration policies, which was designed to deter immigrants from trying to cross the border. Some were separated during a pilot program conducted near El Paso, Texas, in 2017 while most others were separated during a few months in 2018. Even after Trump officially rescinded the program following a bipartisan firestorm of outrage, hundreds of children continued to be separated from their families for minor infractions.
Lawyers and advocates estimate that more than 1,000 migrant children likely remain in the United States and apart from their parents, roughly two years later. The government still has not located the parents of about 500 children, they say. About 105 families have been reunited since Biden took office, but lawyers for the separated families say the administration was not involved in the effort.
The task force expects to announce its first steps to reunite families within weeks, said a person who has been briefed by the Department of Homeland Security staff. Its first report to Biden and federal agencies is due after 120 days.
In early March, Mayorkas announced the administration would reunite the families in the U.S. or in the country of origin but provided no details.
Advocates are pushing the administration to allow deported parents to be allowed into the country and to gain legal status. It also wants families to receive restitution and expanded mental health services and medical care.
“The task force is working every day to address the tragedy that occurred when the previous administration intentionally separated families,” a DHS spokesperson said. “There are thousands of records that must be meticulously reviewed to ensure that no stone goes unturned as we work to locate these families, including potential cases of separation that have not yet been identified.”
The administration has been prohibited from sharing some details of the task force’s progress, according to DHS. On March 10, the administration entered into confidential settlement negotiations in the lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of separated families.
Further complicating reunification efforts: Hundreds of parents have been deported to countries they initially fled and don’t want their children to return because of possible danger. Other children were deported even as their parents remained in the U.S. trying to obtain legal residence.
Biden campaigned on overhauling Trump immigration policies, creating a system where immigrants are more welcomed and migrant families are united. He has introduced a massive immigration package, including executive orders and legislation, but in some areas he has been slow to act.
An administration official pushed back on criticisms that the president or his team have not been quickly enacting immigration policies, citing Trump’s delay of the formal presidential transition as well as the lag in Mayorkas being sworn in, thanks to opposition from Republican senators.
“These things take time and the government is doing the important work to address some of these wrongs and cruelties of the outgoing administration,” the official said.
Child separation seemed, on the surface, to be a logical policy front where Jill Biden could exert some influence. Back in 2018, all four living former first ladies — Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama — had strongly condemned Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which was designed to deter migrants from attempting to cross into the U.S.
That summer, first lady Melania Trump traveled to McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border to visit the migrant children at a facility and assess living conditions. But her trip was overshadowed by her choice of jacket emblazoned with the words, “I really don’t care. Do U?” creating a perception that she was actually disinterested in the issue.
But nothing changed. “It did not lead to any different approach to the way the administration was dealing with children,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an immigration advocacy group, who has been invited to talk to the Biden administration twice in recent weeks.
Jill Biden herself had also shown interest in the immigration and migrant detention matters before her husband was elected. Her spokesperson LaRosa noted that she’d visited the Dadaab refugee camps during the Somali famine in 2011, and gone to see Guatemalan youth facing violence in 2015 and the migrant camp in Mexico 2019.
During the Mexico trip just before Christmas in 2019, Jill Biden spent two hours at a refugee camp across the border from Brownsville, Texas, where about 2,000 migrants, mostly Central Americans, were waiting to enter the U.S. She handed out Christmas gifts to children and served tamales with beans and rice before criticizing the Trump administration. “We are a welcoming nation, but that’s not the message that we’re sending at the border. We’re saying, ‘Stop. Don’t come in,'” she said at the time.
Sister Norma Pimentel, head of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who was one of Jill Biden’s guides, said, “She said she was very involved in visiting refugee camps throughout the world and so it mattered to her to see what was happening here at the border.” Pimentel said.
After she became first lady, Jill Biden called to check on Pimentel, who invited her back to the area down the road.
“She recalled the time she was visiting here and wanted to make sure and ask how the families were,” Pimentel said.
Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this report.