Why are families being separated at the US border?

The Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy has led to almost 2,000 children being separated from their families

Why are children being separated from their families?

In April, the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced a “zero-tolerance” policy, stating “our goal is to prosecute every case that is brought to us”. Under the Trump administration’s new enforcement policy, every migrant who crosses the border illegally – even those seeking asylum in the US – is subject to criminal prosecution.

Since children are not allowed to be held in a federal jail, they are taken from their parents and placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Almost 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the US southern border over a six-week period during a crackdown on illegal entries, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

A DHS spokesman told reporters last week that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults between 19 April and 31 May 2018. Immigrant advocacy groups, however, say hundreds more have been separated since at least July 2017.

What happens to the children?

After being separated from their parents, the children – some as young as 18 months – are then treated as “unaccompanied alien children”, a category which exists primarily to serve children who voluntarily arrive at the border on their own.

Unaccompanied alien children are placed in the custody of ORR within 72 hours of being apprehended by border agents. They then wait, in government-run facilities, for weeks or months while agency officials search for relatives or sponsors to care for the child while their immigration case is pending.

Reporters who have toured the facilities where families are separated by border patrol officers describe hundreds of children waiting in cages with concrete floors, kept away from their families. One immigration advocate told the Associated Press that a teenager helped care for a young child she didn’t know because the child’s aunt was somewhere else in the facility. The teen said she had to show others in her cell how to change the girl’s diaper.

In the shelters, children are offered toys and books. But Colleen Kraft, the president, American Academy of Pediatrics, who toured a shelter in a border town in Texas, described children in distress.

“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health,” she wrote after her visit. “In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short and long-term health.”

The system is already overburdened, dating back to 2014 when tens of thousands of Central American “unaccompanied minors” fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries arrived at the Texas border.

Mothers and children wait to be assisted by volunteers at a humanitarian center in the border town of McAllen, Texas on Friday.
Mothers and children wait to be assisted by volunteers at a humanitarian center in the border town of McAllen, Texas on Friday. Photograph: Leila Macor/AFP/Getty Images

Can these children be reunited with their parents?

Immigration advocacy groups and attorneys have warned that there is not a clear system in place to reunite families. In one case, attorneys in Texas said they had been given a phone number to help parents locate their children, but it was actually the number for an immigration enforcement tip line.

Advocates for children have said they do not know how to find parents, who are more likely to have important information about why the family is fleeing its home country. And if, for instance, a parent is deported, there is no clear way for them to ensure their child is deported with them.

What happened to families before?

When an influx of families and unaccompanied children from Central America arrived at the border in 2014, Barack Obama’s administration detained families.

This was harshly criticized and a federal court in 2015 stopped the government from holding families for months without explanation. Instead, they were released while they waited for their immigration cases to be heard in court. Not everyone shows up for those court dates, leading the Trump administration to condemn what it calls a “catch and release” program.

Will the Trump administration change its policy?

Donald Trump has repeatedly and falsely blamed the widely condemned practice on Democrats – even though officials in his administration have publicly advocated for it.

Sessions, the attorney general, has argued that family separation is necessary to deter migrants from trying to cross the border illegally. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, defended the practice in an interview, arguing that the “name of the game is deterrence”.

In a rare statement on policy, Melania Trump said she “hates to see children separated from their families”. But she also blamed “both sides” for the current situation, echoing her husband’s inaccurate claim that Democrats are responsible for her husband’s policy.

The administration is facing increasing pressure from prominent lawmakers in both parties as well as human rights groups, religions leaders and immigration advocates to halt the practice of separating families.

In a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post, Laura Bush, the wife of former president George W Bush, wrote that the zero-tolerance policy was “cruel” and “immoral”.

“These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history,” she wrote.

Republican lawmakers say they want to address the practice of family separation in a wider immigration bill but its prospects of passing are unlikely.


Amanda Holpuch in New York and Lauren Gambino in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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