The United States has drawn international condemnation for a Trump administration policy that separated families at the border in an effort to curb illegal immigration.
Away from the limelight, a similar policy is tearing apart families already living in the country. They eagerly await action now that President Joe Biden has moved to reverse this and other Trump administration rules — and to pursue a path toward citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
“We can’t do anything because it happened almost a year ago,” said Salvador Cortés, 44, a father of three who saw his wife deported to Mexico after their domestic dispute attracted police attention. “She is there and we are here.”
Cortes, who came to the United States illegally 16 years ago, struggles to keep the family together in their Lake Placid home while working 10 hours a day, six days a week as a lawn service worker. He has never applied for legal residency because he knows he does not qualify.
On hold now are dreams harbored by him and his wife, Francisca, 47, for a bigger house and better life.
Biden signed new executive orders on family separation and other immigration policies earlier this month, saying, “I’m not making new law, I’m eliminating bad policy.”
The orders follow the Senate confirmation of a new Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, an architect of the Obama-era program that allows children brought to the United States illegally to stay in the country, work and attend school. Trump moved to eliminate the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Mayorkas will lead a task force to help reunify the families separated at the border under Trump. Options considered so far include financial and psychological assistance and special visas or residency permits for parents.
At least 5,500 children were separated from their parents along the border with Mexico. For an estimated 600, the parents still have not been located.
Biden’s actions are welcomed by Nora Sandigo, a Nicaraguan-born activist in Miami who advocates for immigrant rights. Sandigo is legal guardian for some 800 children, most of them Mexican, who have at least one deported parent. Her foundation provides many of them shelter and education.
“I think even signing an executive decision, there is still a lot of work to do,” said Sandigo, 54. “President Biden has good intentions, although the road ahead is very difficult because we are sure that many of his initiatives will be questioned and will go to court.”
Still, she hopes the result will be the comprehensive reform of immigration policy that requires the approval of Congress and has eluded the nation’s leaders for decades.
Sandigo favors a solution that grants parents permanent residency.
“Many of these parents are cornered by a very complex immigration system,” she said. “When they face deportation, these parents turn to us or a close family member to take care of their children. It’s a painful separation.“
Trump issued more than 400 executive orders after taking office in 2017 linked to his administration’s goal of reducing immigration, according to the Washington, D.C., think tank Migration Policy Institute.
Biden has said he will work toward a more compassionate and orderly immigration policy. Among his priorities are reviewing Trump policies toughening requirements for those seeking citizenship and requiring asylum seekers, who number some 70,000, to remain in Mexico while their applications are processed. Biden acted last week to end the asylum requirement.
The Biden administration was dealt a setback recently with a federal judge’s ruling prohibiting the start of a planned 100-day moratorium on deportations.
Meantime, Homeland Security is tightening the deportation efforts it undertakes through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Now, the priority is “to focus its limited resources on threats to national security, border security and public safety,” said ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer.
Immigrant advocates hope this means no more family separation, no more targeting of parents like Francisca Cortés.
“There is no doubt that this is a great disaster,” said Paola Luisi, director of Families Belong Together, a coalition of more than 250 groups advocating for children of immigrant parents in the United States and Central America.
For Cortés, her arrest in Highlands County started the wheels of deportation turning. Many local law enforcement authorities alert ICE when they bring in suspects later found to be in the country illegally.
A painful reality in many families, domestic violence carried much higher stakes for the Cortés family. Lake Placid police had been dispatched to the family’s home before when they were called there April 24.
Officers arrested Francisca on an aggravated battery charge, deducing from their interview with the Spanish-speaking Salvador that she had threatened him with a knife during an argument over whether she should work outside the home, an arrest report says.
The children, interviewed separately, agreed she was the aggressor.
Now, Salvador holds out hope that the family can reunite and get a new chance to heal its wounds under new Biden administration policies. All three of the couple’s children, ages 12, 7 and 5, were born in the United States.
“I hope that something can be done and we can offer something better to our children,” he said. “They deserve it.”