A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018. The asylum seekers were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation as part of the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" policy towards undocumented immigrants.
John Moore—Getty Images
Updated: October 23, 2020 5:18 PM EDT | Originally published: October 23, 2020 12:48 AM EDT

President Donald Trump defended his Administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents—and would not detail how he planned to reunite hundreds of kids who reportedly remain separated years later.

At the final presidential debate Thursday night, Trump was asked about the families of 545 kids who have not been located after being separated because of his administration’s immigration policy. The Trump Administration previously pursued a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy as a deterrent for immigrants by prosecuting adults who crossed into the country illegally, resulting in systematic family separation. While many of the families separated by this practice have been reunited, it was later learned that the number of separated children was bigger than initially reported. Earlier this week, members on the steering committee charged with reuniting the families, including the ACLU, said 545 children’s parents still cannot be found, and estimated that about two-thirds had been deported without their kids.

“Yes, we’re working on it, we’re trying very hard,” Trump said when pressed on how his Administration was working to reunite the families. He did not go into details, pivoting instead to tout border security.

Meanwhile groups like Justice in Motion are working to make family reunification happen, including by conducting on the ground searches, to track down the families. They have reportedly struggled in part because of the time that has lapsed since the separations took place at the border.

Instead of engaging with the policy around the specifics, Trump tried to place blame on the Obama Administration, and suggested that “bad people” had brought the children to attempt getting into the U.S. In fact, they were brought by their families, many fleeing violent and dangerous situations, to attempt building a better life.

The zero-tolerance policy sparked national fury in 2018 when thousands of families were torn apart at the border, with heartbreaking crying of some of the children among one of the most poignant cases against it. Eventually, the Trump Administration reversed course following public outrage. A recent New York Times report on an inspector general’s investigation into the policy revealed that top Department of Justice officials knew the policy would separate families, yet chose to pursue it broadly.

The immigration portion of the debate spanned several subjects. Asked about the Obama Administration’s immigration policy—which included record deportations— Biden sought to create rare distance between himself and the President he served.

“We made a mistake,” Biden said of their immigration agenda. “It took too long to get it right. Took too long to get it right. I’ll be President of the United States, not Vice President of the United States.” Notably, the reason an immigration overhaul did not move forward during Obama’s tenure was because a Republican-led House refused to take up the bipartisan immigration deal passed by the Senate in 2013.

Biden said Thursday he was committed to creating a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people. He specifically nodded to DREAMers, whose status the Trump Administration has challenged.

Trump is known for his racist and xenophobic comments, and has a long history of making them against immigrants. His biases were on full display during the immigration portion of the debate. During a discussion about “catch-and-release,” which allowed undocumented immigrants to return for a court date rather than be held in custody, Trump said: “Only the really — I hate to say this — but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.”

Biden criticized Trump on his immigration agenda. “It makes us a laughingstock,” Biden said. “It violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”

Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com.

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