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Homeland Security Secretary On Reuniting Families

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Biden administration is taking steps to undo the Trump administration's family separation policy. And later this week, four families who were separated at the border during the Trump presidency will be reunited. Homeland Security's reunification task force estimates more than a thousand families are still separated. Alejandro Mayorkas is the secretary of Homeland Security.

Thank you so much for coming on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure.

CORNISH: Walk us through how these families were chosen.

MAYORKAS: These families are really the first that we have identified and have been able to bring to the United States. Regrettably - and I should say tragically - there is nothing unique about them as compared to other families that suffered the cruelty of the prior administration. These are the first four families that we're able to reunite in the United States, and they are notable for that reason, Audie. And I should emphasize this is just the beginning.

CORNISH: When you look at these families - I was under the impression that there was very little done in the way of tracking or identification, so what has that meant for your administration coming in now?

MAYORKAS: Audie, the records that we inherited from the prior administration are, quite frankly, a mess. And so it has required a tremendous amount of work on our part. We are beneficiaries of the fact that this is a collective effort with community-based organizations, with plaintiffs' counsel in the litigation. We are all working together to reunify these families, and so we benefit from the information they have as well as the information we ourselves can accumulate.

CORNISH: I want to follow up on what you said about advocacy organizations because a lawyer for Al Otro Lado - and that's an immigrant advocacy organization - told NBC News that Homeland Security is basically taking credit for their work. It was a very specific claim. And I just want to repeat the quote to you where this attorney says, DHS has done nothing to facilitate the return and reunification of these parents this week other than to agree to allow them in and only - and the only reason these mothers will be standing at the port of entry is because of the work this organization has done negotiating their travel visas. Can you respond to that?

MAYORKAS: Audie, this is not about taking credit for the reunification. This is about working together to achieve it - pure and simple. The government is not in a position to take credit. We are working very hard to remedy the past injustices that were inflicted.

CORNISH: I ask only because this is a very specific claim, right? They're saying that they negotiated travel visas, that they paid for the airline tickets. I mean, is any of this correct? - because we're trying to understand how the administration is doing the reunification process.

MAYORKAS: There is so much that we have done with respect to making tomorrow's reunifications possible. I cannot speak to what specifically Al Otro Lado did to make it possible. But if they contributed significantly to this effort, then they should be commended. They are in the trenches and have been in the trenches to achieve reunifications of family for quite a number of years. They precede us in this effort, and we are privileged to be a part of it.

CORNISH: You've said that these families will be granted something called humanitarian parole, temporary permission to enter the country. Any consideration to making that a more permanent status?

MAYORKAS: We are looking at that very carefully, and we're working on that alongside counsel for many of these plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union. We very much recognize the need to deliver both stability and resources to these families so that they can begin the healing process. Humanitarian parole allows them to enter the United States and to remain in the United States and work for a period of time. And that in and of itself might not deliver the stability that they need, and so we're very focused on doing more.

CORNISH: Are there other alternative policies that are being considered - for example, like, a financial compensation to the families that were separated?

MAYORKAS: We have not, Audie, taken anything off the table in terms of what would deliver to these families the stability and resources they need. This is a subject of ongoing discussion, of course, among our agencies and departments across the government. This is an all-of-government effort, as well as with counsel for these families. We are, quite frankly, not in an adverse relationship with counsel for the families but working together to try to bring the healing and restorative efforts that these families so desperately need.

CORNISH: That's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Thank you for speaking with us.

MAYORKAS: Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.