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Family separation policy continues two years after Trump administration claims it ended

The confused and panicked children frantically wept for their parents, who had been separated from them at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“¡Mami!” “¡Papá!” the children from Central America screamed, as if they knew no other words.

“I don’t want them to stop my father,” one child said through tears. “I don’t want them to deport him.”   

Hearing the pleas that were captured on audio two years ago, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent joked, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

As public pressure quickly mounted against Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy to try to deter immigration, he signed an executive order on June 20, 2018 –  two years ago this week – directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop separating families at the border, except in cases where there was concern that the parent might endanger the child. Six days later, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issued a nationwide injunction to halt family separations.

But since then, the practice has continued under the American public’s nose.

By the time the nation heard the children begging for their parents in June 2018, reports surfaced that more than 2,300 others – including 100 toddlers under the age of 4 – had already been separated from their parents in the two months prior. This number would continue to grow.  

In many cases, the already-traumatized children were held in cages within locked warehouses. They slept under blankets resembling aluminum foil.

In other instances, children were shipped to live in tents or newly converted big box stores used as Border Patrol detention facilities. Grief-stricken, they overwhelmingly felt abandoned.

But separating families was nothing new under the Trump administration.

By mid-2017 in El Paso, Texas, the administration had begun its “pilot program,” forcing any adult who crossed the border without permission – a misdemeanor for a first-time offender – into detention. The administration ripped their children from their arms and charged some of them with crimes. By the end of 2017, the administration was separating families along the length of the southern border, including those who lawfully presented themselves to authorities at ports of entry.

Family separation accelerated with the announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy on April 7, 2018. Under this policy, everyone crossing the border – even those seeking asylum – was treated like a criminal. The government took away their children, claiming that they were subject to prosecution. Even families lawfully presenting themselves at ports of entry continued to be separated.

Under the family separation policy and even in 2017, asylum seekers were imprisoned, and accompanying children under 18 were handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which scattered them among more than 100 Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters and other care arrangement centers across the country. Making matters worse, the government failed to create a reunification system, leaving parents unable to reunite with – or even track – their children.         

As the policy went into full swing, advocates fiercely criticized the administration, declaring that the policy was “torturing people.” Former First Lady Laura Bush called the practices “cruel” and “immoral.”

But it wasn’t until June 15, 2018, that DHS publicly acknowledged it had separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents or legal guardians between April 19 and May 31 of that year. This number – which did not account for the thousands separated prior to April 19 – would continue to rise.  

Doubling down

In the months following Trump’s order claiming to end the policy, family separations continued – but under other, more clandestine, practices.   

By July 2018, parents were directed to choose between leaving the U.S. with their children or pursuing their claims for asylum in the U.S. without their children.   That same month, Judge Sabraw noted that at least 463 separated parents may have been removed from the United States without their children.

Amnesty International later reported that CBP had separated 6,022 “family units” between April 19, 2018, and August 15, 2018 – a much higher number than previously reported by the U.S. government. During that time, children were languishing in tent cities on the border, or were locked behind bars in family detention centers without their parents or guardians.   

In October of that year, a 5-year-old girl from Honduras was persuaded to sign away her rights after being separated from her grandmother at the southern border. Immigration advocates reported that the administration was not only doubling down on family separation, but it was doing so “in the cover of the night.”

The next month, Border Patrol agents began using spurious and vague allegations of minor, nonviolent criminal offenses that wouldn’t normally lead to a loss of parental custody as an excuse to continue the separations. In one instance, DHS separated a four year-old boy from El Salvador from his father based on unclear allegations of gang activity, but refused to provide any evidence supporting that accusation.  

By January 2019, HHS reported that thousands more children had been separated from their parents since 2017 than was previously known. Moreover, a staggering number of children had been separated from relatives other than parents or legal guardians. But such separations had not been included in DHS statistics.    

The family separation policy had not ended; it was simply operating covertly.

The ‘nightmare’ continues   

In March 2019, nine months after President Trump rescinded the family separation policy, 245 additional children had been separated from their parents. And by May 2019, that number had grown to 389.

Advocates argued this number was actually much greater, noting that family separations occurred daily near California, and other children were being taken from their parents in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

As they awaited their reunification in El Paso, Texas, some children were locked away for 27 days. They didn’t have enough food or water, and many were suffering from the flu.     

By July 2019, the U.S. government began employing extreme measures to separate families by using databases from foreign police and militaries to uncover whether asylum-seeking parents were affiliated with gangs. Attorneys questioned the tactic, noting that databases could erroneously label asylum seekers as criminals, such as one Salvadoran man who was separated from his family after immigration agents falsely identified him as a gang member.     

That same month, a transcript from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform detailed that the Trump administration hadn’t been transparent with the American people regarding the purposes of the separations. What’s more, the House committee chairman said the “nightmare” of family separations was intensifying problems along the southern border.     

By September 2019, Judge Sabraw – the judge who had issued the order to halt family separations – ordered the administration to reunite 11 children with parents who had been deported under its family separation policy. The judge concluded that some migrants had been pressured to consent to their deportation while they were separated from their children.

Climbing numbers

In January 2020, however, Judge Sabraw refused to issue new guidelines to limit the government from separating migrant families, in turn allowing immigration officials to use their discretion when doing so.

That same month, the official government count of children separated from parents or guardians since 2017 was reported to be 4,368. By February, the administration had separated at least 1,142 additional children from parents at the border since the policy’s “end.” And by mid-May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began forcing parents and their children to separate, or risk being detained together indefinitely.

Two years after the executive order ending the family separation policy was signed and the injunction was issued, the message from the Trump administration is still the same: Migrant families don’t have the basic human right – or need – to stay together.

Related: Family separation under the Trump administration – a timeline

Photo by John Moore / Getty Images