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, adults who crossed the border without permission – a misdemeanor for a first-time offender – were 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. By late 2017, the government was separating families along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, including families arriving through official ports of entry.
On May 7, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it had implemented a “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
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.
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.
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, where hundreds of children are being kept in a series of cages made of metal 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, 2018 – ProPublica 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. Judge Sabraw also prohibits further separations unless the parent poses a danger to the child or has a criminal history or communicable disease. “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.
July 3, 2018 – NBC News reports that in the wake of Judge 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 2,551 children 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 Judge 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 U.S. 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 – The government reports to a court 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 suspected gang activity to separate parents from children.
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.”
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.
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 Trump administration acknowledges that it may have separated at least 1,712 additional children before the “zero tolerance policy” went into effect in May 2018.
June 2, 2019 – NBC News reports that in July 2018, some 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, 2019 – ProPublica 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 12, 2019 – The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing where witnesses described the trauma caused by the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and stated that the administration was not transparent regarding the purpose of the separations, and that the “nightmare” of separating families continues. What’s more, witnesses pointed out that the administration’s policies are continuing to cause problems at the border – not helping to resolve them.
July 15, 2019 – NPR 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 30, 2019 – The ACLU files a motion in the U.S. District Court of San Diego, asking a federal judge to block the Trump administration from continuing to separate families at the border. Since the nationwide injunction was issued on June 26, 2018, more than 900 parents and children – not excluding babies – have been separated at the border. The ACLU alleges that families have been separated for minor transgressions such as traffic offenses. “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.”
Aug. 21, 2019 – DHS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announce a new rule that would end the Flores settlement. The settlement is a consent decree in place for more than two decades that limits the length of time migrant children can be detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to 20 days, requires the government to comply with certain standards of care, and states that children must be placed in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate for their age and needs. The Trump administration’s rule would allow it to indefinitely detain migrant families who crossed the border without authorization.
Aug. 22, 2019 – The New York Times reports that “there is a stench” where detained migrant children are held in a Texas CBP facility. The children have not been able to bathe since crossing the border, and their clothes are soiled with snot and tears. Moreover, the children do not have access to soap, toothbrushes or toothpaste. A reporter described the facility’s conditions as “a chaotic scene of sickness and filth.” One attorney who has for years inspected government facilities that hold migrant children says, “So many children are sick, they have the flu, and they’re not being properly treated.”
September 2019 – A report issued by the HHS Office of Inspector General states that “intense trauma” was common among children who had entered Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities in 2018, with children who had been “unexpectedly separated from a parent” facing additional trauma. The report highlights that children exhibited “fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress” along with anxiety and loss resulting from the separations. Suffering from acute grief, the children would also cry inconsolably.
Sept. 5, 2019 – Judge Sabraw orders the Trump administration to reunite 11 children with parents who were deported under its family separation policy. He says some migrants were pressured to consent to their deportation while they were separated from their children, and that immigration officials gave them false or confusing information. He orders the government to allow the migrants to return to the U.S. for an opportunity to pursue asylum claims.
Sept. 27, 2019 – U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California rejects the administration’s plan to end the Flores settlement. Advocates previously lamented that terminating the settlement would be “cruel beyond imagination,” citing the cases of at least seven children who died in detention.
Nov. 6, 2019 – U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt orders the government to provide mental health screenings and treatment to separated parents, citing “extensive evidence” of the “substantial trauma” that these families suffered due to the Trump administration’s policy.
Nov. 25, 2019 – The DHS Office of Inspector General reports that the agency failed to properly track and reunify families during the family separation crisis, citing “poor data entry, data tracking, information sharing and IT systems capabilities.”
Dec. 9, 2019 – The U.S. government has separated more than 1,100 migrant families at the border since June 2018, when Trump issued an executive order to halt separations, The Intercept reports. The government’s own data suggests the number could be even higher, due to wildly inconsistent record keeping.
Dec. 16, 2019 – The Trump administration knew migrant children would suffer from family separations but ramped up the practice anyway, The Texas Tribune reports.
Jan. 10, 2020 – The SPLC sues the Trump administration on behalf of two immigrant parents and their children separated at the border. The lawsuit describes the deliberately cruel government actions that harmed these families. Covington & Burling and Coppersmith Brockelman law firms serve as co-counsel.
Jan. 13, 2020 – After the ACLU in July 2019 filed its motion to stop family separations, Judge Sabraw refuses to issue new guidelines to further limit the government’s ability to separate migrant families, instead allowing immigration officials to use their discretion to decide whether to separate children from their parents in certain – mostly spurious – circumstances.
Jan. 18, 2020 – The Los Angeles Times reports that the official government count of children separated from their parents or guardians under the family separation policy is 4,368. Meanwhile, attorneys say it still proves incredibly difficult to reach hundreds of parents of children separated from them. They also say that known flaws in government tracking systems mean that the total number of separated families is likely higher.
March 18, 2020 – GAO issues a report, stating that arrests of families (parents or guardians traveling with children under 18) grew from about 22 percent of total southwest border apprehensions in fiscal year 2016 to about 51 percent of such apprehensions during the first two quarters of fiscal year 2019.
May 29, 2020 – Yet another HHS Office of Inspector General report is published, revealing that CBP separated more asylum-seeking families at ports of entry than previously reported, and for reasons other than what had been outlined in public statements. CBP claimed it had only separated seven asylum-seeking parents from children between May 6, 2018, and July 9, 2018. But in reality, at least 60 asylum-seeking families were separated in May and June 2018, at 11 ports of entry.