President Joe Biden's administration says it plans to allow the remaining hundreds of migrant families who were separated at the border under Donald Trump's policies to, if needed, reunite and then try to stay in the U.S.
"We are hoping to reunite the families either here or in the country of origin," Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was recently confirmed as the new head of homeland security, said Monday.
"We hope to be in a position to give them the election and, if in fact they seek to reunite here in the U.S., we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States — and to address the family needs, so we are acting as restoratively as possible," Mayorkas, 61, added during a White House press briefing.
The announcement comes after Biden, 78, ran on a campaign promise to reverse many of his predecessor's most divisive policies, including the Trump administration's aggressive anti-immigration stance.
Trump's "zero tolerance" policy at the border resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border during his term in office.
The policy, which government officials viewed as a deterrent to the immigration Trump had campaigned against stopping, was ended in 2018 in the face of immense backlash.
Hours after taking over in January, Biden signed a stack of executive orders reversing Trump's policies, including one that created a task force focused on reuniting those families — a goal lauded by advocates but which faces logistical challenges of its own such as reaching the separated parents.
By the time Biden came into office, more than 600 migrant children were still separated from their parents, Politico reported.
"I'm eliminating bad policy," Biden said in January.
The announcement also comes as criticism has mounted from migrant rights advocates after the Biden administration reopened a holding facility in Texas for children entering the country unaccompanied.
The facility had been shut down in 2019 after one month. But Biden's administration has said it was reopened because more space was needed to abide by COVID-19 guidelines.
"Our hope and expectation is that won't stay open very long, that we will be able to provide for every kid that comes across the border to safely be housed in a facility that is licensed," Biden said in an interview last week, according to NPR.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Texas facility, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request Wednesday for the latest on how many children were currently at the center and the condition of the facility.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive, slammed the Biden administration's decision to reopen the facility, saying it was "not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay—no matter the administration or party."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration's call to reopen the Texas children's detention facility was a "difficult decision," emphasizing that it was made to adhere to COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
CBS News recently reported that 5,700 children arrived unaccompanied at the border in January.
Because of the recent surge in migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking entry into the country, Psaki said the administration needed to "expand and open additional facilities" to stay in line with COVID-19 safety.
But Ocasio-Cortez's criticism, echoed by others on the left, underlines the strong opinions on the country's immigration policy even as Biden seeks a contrasting tone with Trump.
Indeed, after Secretary Mayorkas' comments this week about reuniting families, the ACLU issued a statement pressing for more certainty and more specifics.
"Of course, the devil is in the details and Secretary Mayorkas has to shed all the caveats and qualifications around his announcement and follow through with everything that's necessary to right the wrong," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said.
"These separated families suffered unfathomably because of what our government did, and we owe them restitution," Romero continued. "This includes a permanent pathway to citizenship, care, and resources to help them."
Last week, Psaki, 42, vehemently denied the administration's approach to immigration was similar to the much criticized methods taken up under Trump.
"What we are not doing — what the last administration did — was separate kids, rip them from the arms of their parents at the border," she said. "We are not doing that. That is immoral and that is not the approach of this administration."
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