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Family separation under the Trump administration – a timeline

Long before the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy in 2018, it was already separating children from their parents as part of a “pilot program” conducted in the El Paso, Texas, area and along other parts of the border.

Under the El Paso program, begun in mid-2017, any adult who crossed the border without permission – a misdemeanor for a first-time offender – was detained and criminally charged. No exceptions were made for parents arriving with young children. The children were taken from them, and parents were unable to track or reunite with their children because the government failed to create a system to facilitate reunification.    

On May 7, 2018, the Department of Justice implemented its “zero tolerance” policy, dictating that all migrants who cross the border without permission, including those seeking asylum, be referred to the DOJ for prosecution. Undocumented asylum-seekers were imprisoned, and any accompanying children under the age of 18 were handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which shipped them miles away from their parents and scattered them among 100 Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters and other care arrangements across the country. Hundreds of these children, including infants and toddlers, were under the age of 5.

Prior to the Trump administration, families were generally paroled into the country to await their immigration cases or detained together.

The following is a timeline of family separation under President Trump, beginning less than two months after he took office following a campaign in which he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.     

Photo John Moore/Getty Images

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images


March 3, 2017 – The Trump administration is considering a proposal to begin separating children from their mothers at the border as a way to deter future migrants, Reuters reports. The policy would allow the government to keep parents in custody while they await asylum hearings or contest deportation.

Nov. 25, 2017 – The Houston Chronicle reports that the Trump administration has, since at least June, been separating children from parents who cross the border. The paper identifies 22 cases of parents whose children were taken without due process.

Photo by Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images/AFP


June 9, 2018 – A man from Honduras who suffered a nervous breakdown after being separated from his wife and child at the border died by suicide in a Texas jail in May, The Washington Post reports. The government has no comment on the man’s death and has yet to address how it plans to handle parents whose mental health deteriorates after their families have been split up.          

June 14, 2018 – CNN reports that a Honduran woman was breastfeeding her daughter in detention in McAllen, Texas, when federal authorities snatched the child away from her. “The government is essentially torturing people by doing this,” says Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.          

June 15, 2018 – For the first time, DHS publicly acknowledges that it separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents or legal guardians between April 19 and May 31. The government’s protocol for reunifying families has yet to be made clear.      

June 17, 2018 – Journalists and human rights advocates tour an old warehouse in McAllen, Texas, were hundreds of children are being kept in a series of cages made of mental fencing. The Associated Press reports that overhead lighting stays on around the clock, children are sleeping under “large foil sheets,” older children are forced to change the diapers of toddlers and that children have no books or toys. One toddler is seen crying uncontrollably and pounding her fists on a mat. “If a parent left a child in a cage with no supervision with other 5-year-olds, they’d be held accountable,” says Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission.    

June 17, 2018 – Former first lady Laura Bush calls the administration’s practices “cruel” and “immoral” in a commentary published by The Washington Post.

June 17, 2018 – Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweets, falsely: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

June 18, 2018ProPublica publishes a now-viral audio clip, where Central-American children separated from their parents are heard sobbing in jail-like cages, crying “mami” and “papa” over and over. Guards can be heard making jokes about the desperate children.  “I don’t want them to deport him,” one child cries. “Daddy!” another screams.

June 20, 2018 – Reacting to mounting public pressure, President Trump signs an executive order directing DHS to stop separating families except in cases where there is concern that the parent represents a risk to the child. Trump falsely blames Congress, the courts and previous administrations for his family separation policy, claiming that now “[y]ou’re going to have a lot of happy people.” CBS News reports that 2,342 children were separated at the border from more than 2,200 adults between May 5 to June 9.  

June 26, 2018 – Following a class action suit filed by the ACLU, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issues a preliminary injunction requiring U.S. immigration authorities to reunite most separated families within 30 days and to reunite children younger than 5 within two weeks. Further separations are to only occur if the parent or guardian poses a threat to the child’s safety. “The court made clear that potentially thousands of children’s lives are at stake, and that the Trump administration cannot simply ignore the devastation it has caused,” says ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.           

Photo by Pedro Pardo/Getty Images/AFP

July 3, 2018 – NBC News reports that in the wake of Sabraw’s injunction, the  Trump administration is forcing migrants to choose between leaving the country with or without their kids, effectively preventing them from asking for asylum.                  

July 13, 2018 – The Trump administration says in a court filing that 2,551children between the ages of five and 17 remain separated from their parents, almost a month after the “zero tolerance” policy was revoked.  

July 26, 2018 – More than 900 parents have yet to be reunified with their children by the court’s deadline. “It’s the reality of a policy that was in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people,” says Sabraw. More than half of those parents – 463 – have been deported to their home countries without their children.          

Oct. 11, 2018 – Helen, a 5-year-old girl from Honduras, was persuaded to sign away her rights after being separated from her grandmother, The New Yorker reports. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump administration never stopped separating children from their families,” says Jess Morales Rocketto, of Families Belong Together. “In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night.”           

Oct. 11, 2018 – As the grueling process of reunifying families continues, Amnesty International publishes a report that cites Customs and Border Patrol data indicating that 6,022 “family units” had been separated between April 19, 2018, and August 15, 2018 – a much greater number than previously stated. “Right now, hundreds of children are languishing in tent cities on the border,” says Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Even more children are locked behind bars in family detention centers. This is nothing short of unconscionable.”  

Oct. 15, 2018 – An analysis by the ACLU shows that a total of 2,654 children have been separated from their parents, and of that number, 2,363 have been discharged from ORR custody. But 125 children made the tough decision to pursue asylum in the U.S. without their parent, while another 120 children who hadn’t waived reunification were still in ORR’s care, waiting to be reunited.   

Nov. 17, 2018 – Families are still being separated at the border, ProPublica reports. As justification, Border Patrol agents are using vague or unproven allegations of minor, nonviolent criminal offenses, such as decades-old DUI charges, that wouldn’t normally lead to a loss of parental custody. A young boy from El Salvador was separated from his father based solely on a difference in hair color. “I failed him,” said the boy’s father. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.” 

Dec. 20, 2018 – Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen once again falsely claims the administration has no family separation policy. “I’m not a liar, we’ve never had a policy for family separation,” she says. If there were one, she adds, it “would mean that any family that I found at a port of entry I would separate, it would mean that every single family that I found illegally crossing, we would separate. We did none of those.”

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images


Jan. 17, 2019 – The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general finds that thousands more children than previously known may have been separated from their parents since 2017. The numbers began to increase in the summer of 2017, when DHS referred more and more separated children to ORR. The number of children separated is unknown because of the lack of a formal tracking system coordinated among the agencies involved.                           

Jan. 17,  2019 – The list of families to be reunified is “still being revised” nearly six months after reunification is ordered by a federal court, The New York Times reports.

Feb. 14, 2019 – A report by the Texas Civil Rights Project finds that as family separations continue, a significant number of children have been separated from relatives other than parents or legal guardians. Such separations are not counted by DHS in its statistics.

Feb. 27, 2019 – The federal government received more than 4,500 complaints about the sexual abuse of immigrant children held in detention from October 2014 to July 2018, The New York Times reports. Of the 1,303 cases considered the gravest, 178 included accusations of sexual assault by adult staff members. Those allegations included rape, fondling, kissing and watching children shower.    

March 8, 2019 – A federal judge agrees to expand the ACLU’s class action lawsuit – which earlier resulted in a reunification order – to include families that had been separated months earlier than those previously disclosed.       

March 9, 2019 – The Trump administration reports to a federal court that it has separated 245 children from their parents and other relatives since President Trump rescinded the family separation policy nearly nine months earlier. Government officials say they are following guidelines allowing separations when an adult poses a safety risk to the child. But The New York Times reports that in some cases children were removed from parents who had minor previous offenses, including one for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

April 6, 2019 – The government says in court documents that it may take two years to identify potentially thousands of children who’ve been separated from their families at the southern border.

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

May 8, 2019 – The administration acknowledges it has separated 389 families   since June 2018, when a court ordered it to end the policy. Advocates contend the number is significantly higher, noting that at least 40 separations occur daily along the California border, with others continuing in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.        

May 18, 2019 – The number of children separated from their families is now estimated to be more than 2,800, after the Trump administration identifies at least 1,712 additional children it may have taken in mid-2018.     

June 2, 2019 – NBC News reports that in July 2018, 37 children boarded a van for a 30-minute drive to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, to be reunited with their parents. Some were as young as 5. But once there, they were forced to wait in the van, in the hot sun – some for as long as 39 hours.  

June 20, 2019 – The Associated Press ignites public outcry when it reports that at a facility near El Paso, roughly 250 infants, children and teens have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water or sanitation. Some were separated from adult caregivers after arriving at the border. At least 15 were suffering from the flu. “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” says Holly Cooper, an attorney who represents the detained youth.    

July 8, 2019ProPublica reports that the U.S. is now using databases from foreign police and militaries to find out if asylum-seekers have gang affiliations. Attorneys representing asylum-seekers along the border question how frequently the databases are used and whether they may be wrongly labeling migrants as criminals. The report points to a Salvadoran man named Carlos, who was separated from his family after immigration agents accused him of being in a gang. “I told them I’ve never been in a gang,” he said. “And the agent said your government is saying you are.”     

July 15, 2019NPR reports that after a doctor told Border Patrol agents that a 3-year-old girl from Honduras who suffers a heart condition should remain in the U.S., an agent gave the family a choice. One parent could stay with the child, but the other would have to return to Mexico. The agent told the girl to choose. After the doctor appealed to another agent, the family was released together.

July 31, 2019 – The ACLU asks a judge to rule on whether the 911 separations from June 28, 2018, to June 29, 2019, were justified. The ACLU alleges that during this time, the administration separated families over minor offenses, such as traffic tickets, and for other flimsy reasons. “It is shocking that the Trump administration continues to take babies from their parents,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt says. “The administration must not be allowed to circumvent the court order over infractions like minor traffic violations.”