Biden administration begins reuniting some migrant children with their parents

The Biden administration is beginning to reunite some families who were separated at the southern border under the Trump administration. On Tuesday, a mother and son from Mexico were brought back together after nearly four years apart. CBS News' Lilia Luciano shares their story, then CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez joins CBSN's Elaine Quijano to discuss that and more.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: The Biden administration is beginning to reunite some families who were separated at the southern border under the Trump administration. On Tuesday, a mother and son from Mexico were brought back together after nearly four years apart. Lilia Luciano has their story.

LILIA LUCIANO: Today feels like a dream to 18-year-old Brian Chavez. Outside the port of entry in San Ysidro, California, he anxiously waits for his mother, Sandra, who is crossing from Mexico. The two haven't seen each other since being separated at the border in 2017, part of the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. Seeking a safe haven for Mexican cartels, Brian, 15 at the time, was placed in a refugee shelter while his mother was deported. Finally tonight, a family ripped apart is reunited, and mother and son hold each other tight.

BRIAN CHAVEZ: There's literally no words to describe the happiness that I'm feeling right now. And I'm really grateful with all the people that did this amazing work to allow my mom come back.

LILIA LUCIANO: More than 5,500 families were separated under the Trump administration. More than 1,000 of those migrant children have still not been reunited with their parents. In February, President Biden created a task force to reunite them.

What does a moment like this mean to our whole country?

- I think when we saw babies being ripped out of their mom's arms at the border, when we saw children crying in cages, when we saw that level of cruelty, we really needed to move quick to a moment like this.

LILIA LUCIANO: This family is the first of four celebrating reunions this week.

End of a nightmare?

BRIAN CHAVEZ: Yes.

LILIA LUCIANO: Brian Chavez graduated from high school two years ago. His experience affected him so deeply, he's now working with an organization helping refugee children who are going through a similar crisis.

BRIAN CHAVEZ: We're going to try to recover and spend the most time that we can together.

LILIA LUCIANO: When Sandra came out, her grandson ran to her and asked, Grandma, will you stay forever? We don't know the answer to that, but her son has a green card. He is a permanent resident. And as for Sandra, she still may have to apply for asylum and make her case. Elaine.

- Lilia Luciano, thank you. For more, let's bring in CBS News Immigration Reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez. Camilo, it's good to see you again. So parents who were deported during the previous administration are being allowed in the US through humanitarian parole, which is a temporary measure. What more do we know about how the Biden administration is working to provide long-term status to these individuals?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Hi, Elaine. So as you mentioned, these are the first US-based reunifications of migrant families separated under President Trump. And they will be taking place here now during the Biden administration, which created this task force, as you mentioned, to locate and reunite families who had been separated under the previous administration.

These families, as you mentioned-- the parents, at least-- will be granted humanitarian parole, which is a legal recourse that the Department of Homeland Security has to allow migrants who enter the country legally on humanitarian grounds-- will allow them to continue their cases here so they can reunite with their children. And this is a stark difference from the position taken by the Trump administration, which actually refused to allow families to reunite here on American soil.

It only allowed parents to have their children be brought to them in their home countries like Central America. So it is a stark difference. But the task force responsibilities are far from over. We know that the ACLU estimates that there are still about 1,000 families who have yet to reunite. We know that many of the parents were deported to Central America without their children, and we know that advocates are still trying to locate the parents of more than 400 children in Central America who, again, were deported without their parents. And right now, the Family Reunification Task Force is trying to identify and go through several documents to try to piece these items together to try to locate these parents.

ELAINE QUIJANO: We reported the number of unaccompanied children in US Border Patrol custody dropped nearly 90% from late March. Remind us, Camilo, how long were children being held, and what's behind this decline?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Sure. So back in March when we saw nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children enter US border custody, there were nearly 5,800 of them in Border Patrol facilities, which, as we have discussed on multiple occasions, are not designed to hold children for more than 72 hours. These are tents and stations that are mainly designed to hold adult migrants for short periods of time. And children at that time, in March, were being held for an average of 130 hours in Customs and Border Patrol custody.

Right now, there are less than 700 unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody, Elaine. That is a dramatic drop, obviously. And children, according to DHS, are now spending an average of 20 hours in Customs and Border Protection custody. So the number of children in CPP custody has been reduced dramatically. And children are, on average, spending less time in these Border Patrol facilities.

The reason behind this dramatic drop, Elaine, is that the Biden administration has opened more than a dozen emergency facilities, managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, to house these minors and to get them out of Border Patrol facilities. These are convention centers, work camps, and military sites in California and Texas. So now the big task for the Biden administration is to place all these children, more than 22,000 currently in HHS care, into sponsor homes, into the homes of relatives, sometimes parents who are living here in the US.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, last week, the Pentagon announced it was stopping all border wall construction projects that had been paid for with redirected military funds during the Trump administration. What about other projects, Camilo, paid through the Department of Homeland Security's budget? Could those also be canceled?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's a great question, Elaine, because the move last week by the Biden administration affects border wall construction that was funded by Pentagon funds. Remember that the Trump administration diverted more than $10 billion in Pentagon and counternarcotics funds for border wall construction. President Biden has ordered an immediate halt to border wall construction, but he also ordered an immediate halt to these transfers of funds from the military.

So now these military construction projects will continue, and they will not be used for border wall construction. However, Congress did appropriate, during Mr. Trump's term, about $5 billion in funds for border wall construction. And it is unclear, Elaine, what the Biden administration will do with these funds. We do know that they have now launched a campaign to, quote, "repair the damage" that they believe the border wall caused in border communities. So they are undertaking efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas, and in San Diego, California to try to, for example, address soil erosion that they believe was caused by the wall.

LILIA LUCIANO: Camilo, I'm still thinking about your extraordinary reporting along the southern border last week in Texas. We saw you at one point in live shots talking to us from one side of the southern border, and then in the course of that live shot, taking us to the other side of the border to illustrate just how challenging an issue the issue of border security really is. Tell us a little bit about that experience, Camilo. What was it like to be there? What are some key takeaways from your trip?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Thanks for the question, Elaine. We've heard for several weeks now about the record arrivals of unaccompanied children, about the fact that apprehensions across the board have reached levels not seen in over two decades. But there in South Texas, we were able to talk to asylum seekers, migrants, and Border Patrol officials who are central to this story. And they described, obviously, the inconsistent enforcement of US policy right now. Some families are being allowed to stay and seek asylum. Others are still being sent back to Mexico.

Most adults are also being sent back to Mexico under a Trump-era public health order known as Title 42. Border officials seem to have managed the worst part of this sharp increase in the unaccompanied children. They are transferring them more quickly now to the shelters managed by the Department of Homeland Security. And again, we were able to witness the fact that for many of these asylum seekers, the crisis, again, is in their home countries because of the poverty they fled, the hurricane damage that they fled, or the violence that they had to escape from.

So that's something that it's very important to keep in mind, because we've heard from especially Republican lawmakers that there is currently a crisis at the border. And there are certainly logistical and humanitarian challenges for the new administration there, especially with the number of unaccompanied children. But it is also important to know that there are crises in these home countries that many people are leaving.

LILIA LUCIANO: Right. Finally, Camilo, Vice President Kamala Harris will meet virtually with the president of Mexico later this week, where the two are expected to discuss migration. What more can you tell us about that?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Well, as you know, Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked by President Biden to oversee diplomatic efforts to reduce migration from Central America and to reduce the so-called push factors that prompt families and children to head up north like poverty and violence in those countries. What we noticed during the Trump administration, Elaine, was that the US government, especially President Trump, was not shy about trying to force, really, Mexico to bolster its immigration enforcement.

At one point, President Trump threatened Mexico with tariffs unless it deployed its national guard to intercept migrants, a move that Mexico ultimately undertook and that helped lower the number of families and children coming to the US border. It is unclear if Vice President Kamala Harris will undertake that similar approach, but I do think that she will likely ask Mexico to bolster its immigration enforcement, to intercept migrants before they reach the US-Mexico border. Because if that happens, the Biden administration will have an easier task of dealing with the people who actually do come across. And this has been a practice, again, that has been deployed by Democratic and Republican administrations of trying to basically outsource immigration enforcement to Mexico, which is now a really transit country for many of these Central American migrants and asylum seekers.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right. It's such a critical issue, Camlio Montoya-Galvez. It's good to have you back and talking to us about this. We'll continue to watch developments. Thanks so much, Camilo.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Thanks, Elaine.