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Immigration 101: What is Zero Tolerance Family Separation?

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Originally published June 18, 2018; last updated March 25, 2019

The Trump Administration has separated over 2,300 children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2017. The Administration created a ‘’zero-tolerance” policy which ordered the prosecution of 100% of all parents caught crossing the border with children, whether they are crossing at a port of entry or not — knowing this policy would result in a massive number of family separations. The children were detained in separate facilities for months, separated from their parents as well as their siblings, living in cages and abysmal conditions, while parents faced prosecution and deportation.

The Administration crafted this policy with the intention that their cruelty would act as a deterrent for future migrants. However, a pilot project showed ahead of time that this deterrent would be ineffective.

In June 2018, courts blocked the “zero-tolerance” policy and mandated the return of all the children, but the Administration went on and continued to separate children from their families. Internal reports have also confirmed that thousands more children were separated than the Administration originally admitted. The exact number is unknown due to tragically poor tracking of the separations.  

The Administration has repeatedly lied about the details of the zero-tolerance family separation policy.  More details continue to emerge as a new Democratic House attempts to hold the Trump Administration accountable for this cruel policy.

In this post:

Timeline of family separations

Here is an ongoing timeline of the Trump Administration’s separation of families:

  • March 3, 2017: The Trump Administration reportedly first begins considering separating children from families at the border; the idea is temporarily nixed for being too controversial.
  • March 7, 2017: Then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly tells CNN he is considering a family separation policy.
  • Summer 2017: The Administration begins a pilot program to test their family separation policy in the El Paso, Texas border region. They separate an unknown number of families, according to an Inspector General report.
  • October 2017:  The New York Times reports that the Administration has separated more than 700 children, 100 of whom are under the age of 4.
  • December 21, 2017: The Administration convenes an interagency meeting to further discuss family separation.
  • January 11, 2018: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sends a letter to the Trump administration warning of the dangers of family separation.
  • January 16, 2018: Over 100 experts in child welfare, juvenile justice, and child development sends a letter to the Trump Administration to warn against family separations.
  • March 1, 2018: The AAP sends a follow-up letter to the Trump Administration warning of the dangers of family separation and urging DHS to reject a family separation policy.
  • April 6, 2018: Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announces the “zero-tolerance” family separation policy. As a result of the new policy, the Department of Homeland Security is ordered to prosecute 100% of all parents caught crossing the border with children, whether they are crossing at a port of entry or not. Children are taken away from their parents while parents faced prosecution.
  • April 11, 2018: Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen denies that there is a family separation policy in testimony before Congress.
  • April 16, 2018: The inspector general begins an investigation of family separation.
  • May 11, 2018: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defends family separation as a “tough deterrent.”
  • May 27, 2018: Trump falsely blames Democrats for his Administration’s self-created crisis.
  • May 31, 2018: A cumulative total of 1,995 children are taken from their parents.
  • June 2018: The Administration begins housing separated children in “tent cities.”
  • June 2018: The Administration begins tracking the reproductive cycles of some immigrant girls in custody (while failing to create a tracking system for the children they separated).
  • June 4, 2018: Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is prevented from observing a detention facility holding separated children.  
  • June 7, 2018: 540 organizations from all 50 states representing experts in child welfare, juvenile justice, and child development send a letter to the White House calling for the end of child separation.
  • June 9, 2018: 2,342 children are separated from their families.
  • June 13, 2018: The GOP puts forward an anti-immigrant bill that they falsely claimed would end family separations. It went nowhere.  
  • June 14, 2018: Then-AG Sessions attempts to use a Bible verse to defend family separation.  
  • June 17, 2018: DHS Security Nielsen continues to deny DHS policy for separating families at the border. She tweeted “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border.  Period.”
  • June 18, 2018: Following criticism from members of Congress about children being kept in cages, CBP releases photos of children being kept in cages.
  • June 18,  2018: DHS Secretary Nielsen says, “We will not apologize,” for the Administration’s family separation policy.
  • June 19, 2018:  “We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect,” says HHS’s acting assistant secretary, Steven Wagner about the “zero-tolerance” policy.  
  • June 20, 2018: After massive pressure and outcry over the Administration’s policy, Trump signs an executive order that he claims will end family separation, but the order does not end the practice.
  • June 27, 2018: A judge orders an end to family separation and tells the Trump Administration to reunite families. The judge rules children under the age of 5 must be reunited within 14 days and children age 5 and older within 30 days.
  • July 5, 2018: The New York Times reports that records “linking children to their parents have disappeared, and in some cases have been destroyed, according to two officials of the Department of Homeland Security.”
  • July 10, 2018: The Administration fails to meet the first court deadline, reuniting only 38 children under the age of 5 — less than half of the 102 children who are part of this group and short of their own goal of reuniting 58.
  • July 11, 2018: 2,654 children are identified for reunification with their families.
  • July 11, 2018: A judge rules that the Administration can force parents to stay with their children in indefinite detention or be separated in the hopes of an expedited process.
  • July 17, 2018: Horrific reports and stories about abuse, filthy conditions, and inadequate food and water for children and families in detention emerge.  
  • July 26, 2018: The Trump Administration fails to meet the second reunification deadline, only reuniting 43 percent of the children they separated.  
  • July 26, 2018: 463 parents are reported deported without their children.
  • July 29, 2018: A lawsuit alleges that families coming to the border were coerced by ICE officials to sign documents they didn’t understand, that facilitated deportation without their children.   
  • July 30, 2018: 711 children are still separated from their families
  • August 2, 2018: The Administration argues they are not responsible for reuniting the remaining children, telling the ACLU to do it instead.
  • August 9, 2018: 572 children remain separated from their parents.
  • September 2018: The Trump Administration considers creating a new family separation policy.    
  • September 7, 2018: The Trump Administration calls for changes to the Flores settlement to allow them to indefinitely detain migrant children.
  • September 2018: Reports show the Administration did not provide basic due process to families that it deemed ineligible for reunification.
  • September 25, 2018: An internal memo from April 2018 is leaked to the press showing the Administration was fully aware that zero tolerance would result in massive family separations.  
  • October 15, 2018: 120 children remain separated from their families — 50 with parents who were removed from the U.S. and 70 whose parents were still in the U.S.
  • October 2018: 13 more children are identified for reunification.  
  • November 26, 2018: 60 Minutes airs a searing report finding that the Administration lied about the aim of the zero tolerance policy and how long the policy was in effect. They also find that the Administration failed to properly reunite children, and explain the potential long-term effects on children affected by the policy.
  • December 2018: 149 more children are identified for reunification.  
  • January 17, 2019: The Office of the Inspector General releases a report revealing that thousands more children than were previously reported were separated from their families.
  • February 2019: The Texas Civil Rights Project’s report shows 272 family separations in a single Texas court since June 2018.
  • February 7, 2019: The House Energy and Commerce committee holds the first oversight hearing on family separations called by the new Democratic House majority.
  • February 26, 2019: The House Judiciary Committee holds an oversight hearing on Trump’s family separation policy. The hearing finds that key officials never expressed concern over family separation, that the Trump Administration was more concerned with prosecuting parents than keeping families together, that no trauma experts were consulted before beginning the family separation policy, and that separations continued without child welfare expert input.
  • March 6, 2019: DHS Secretary Nielsen continues to lie before Congress and admits she knew little of the long-term effects of the trauma inflicted by family separation.  
  • March 8, 2019: The court expands the Ms. L class action to include the children that were separated before the “zero-tolerance” policy was announced.     

Why did the Trump Administration separate thousands of families?

Extremists like Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, and John Kelly thought the policy would deter families from coming to the border — an idea that turned out to be completely wrong.  That did not stop DHS Secretary Nielsen from repeatedly lying about the Administration’s motivations behind the policy.

What happened to the children after they were separated from their families?

When children are taken from parents by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the border, the law requires that the child be transferred to the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours. Currently, HHS has 11,200 beds to care for such children, well below the number needed. Because there was so little room left to house children at government facilities, the Trump Administration opened “tent cities” along the Texas border.

As a result, according to an expose by NBC News, children were left in unsafe conditions at border stations longer than necessary and in violation of the law. In some cases the children were kept in cages and in places they called the “ice box” because it was so cold.

Children just a few months old were separated and taken away from their parents. In some cases, even after the parents have been deported, the government held onto the children and prevented the families from being reunited.

Doctors with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other experts on child welfare have drawn attention to the great and irreparable harm that family separation wreaks upon children. As Dr. Alan Shapiro with the AAP said: “As children develop, we know their brains change in response to the environments they’re in. Detention leads to very serious distress which is called toxic stress. Toxic stress can impair brain development and cause lasting damage. The report really spells out in black and white the consequences that the zero-tolerance policy has for children. To keep a child in one of those centers is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Is the separation of families a new policy?

Yes. Prior to the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, children were not separated from parents unless there were questions of potential human trafficking, danger to the child, or false claims to parentage. Even DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her spokesperson confirmed the difference between this prior policy and zero tolerance under the Trump Administration.

It is the Trump Administration that is deciding to enact this policy — no one else. Contrary to what Trump has claimed, there is no law which mandates that this practice keep happening. Trump could stop the separation of families anytime he wants.

What has the separation of families looked like?

Here are just some of the stories we’ve seen from the ongoing separation of families:

  • A 4-month old baby was taken from its mother as it was breastfeeding; the mother was handcuffed for “resisting”
  • Children are learning to change younger children’s diapers because they have all been separated from their parents
  • A father was separated from his four-month-old baby. Even after he accepted being deported in order to reunite with his child, the government removed him from the U.S. but kept his baby. They have now been apart for four months.
  • A father was so distraught over being separated from his wife and child that he killed himself.
  • Audio from inside a detention facility featured children crying, and an agent making light of it
  • The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law documented 200 accounts of the conditions faced by migrant children and their parents. Read a summary of some of their stories here.
  • A two-year old had to face immigration court by herself.
  • Video footage provided by Customs and Border Protection showed children in cages and under thin space blankets
  • The New Yorker reported that a  five-year-old was persuaded by the border patrol into signing away her rights.
  • CNN reported that ICE put a 4-year-old on a plane to Guatemala by herself and her dad only found out 30 minutes before she landed.

The Trump Administration’s lack of transparency

Even after it was clear that thousands of children had been separated from their parents, the Trump Administration continued to deny that this was happening.

On June 18, 2018, Kirstjen Nielsen said, “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period.” She continues to lie to the American people and to Congress about the details of the Administration’s family separation policy.

The Trump Administration provided no answers to basic questions from members of Congress, federal judges, public defenders, members of the media, and even the federal prosecutors and DHS personnel who were  tasked with applying this new policy. Members of Congress and members of the media were sometimes denied access to detention centers where children are being held. When they are allowed access, they were often not allowed to bring cameras or other recording devices. At one point, when Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked to tour a detention facility, agents there called the police and told him to leave.

It is not clear what the policies are for taking care of these children, whether immigration agents in the detention centers are qualified to do so, or what the process is for trying to reunite children with their parents. Even after the courts officially ended the “zero-tolerance” policy, the Administration kept quiet about the thousands of children that had not yet been reported as separated.

Now that Democrats are in charge of the House and holding oversight hearings, members of the Administration are still trying to obscure the facts and the full consequences of their cruel policy.   

The Trump Administration’s wrongful blaming of Democrats

Even though the Trump Administration is responsible for this policy, and even though Republicans controlled the Senate, House, and White House, Donald Trump has wrongly tried to blame Democrats for the separation of families.

Trump told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, “I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough, but those are the bad laws that the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families.”

Politifact rated that statement as “false” saying  “there is no law that mandates separating children from their parents. Trump’s own administration devised a policy to that effect.”

Amy Harmon of the New York Times reported:

President Trump over the weekend falsely blamed Democrats for a ‘horrible law’ separating immigrant children from their parents. In fact, his own administration had just announced this policy earlier this month….There is no law mandating separation. And the Democrats did not initiate that.

As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN, “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call … I’ll go tell him: If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS, ‘Stop doing it.’”

The Republican-led Congress could have certainly passed a law that prevented the Trump Administration from separating families. But they did not act, just as they’ve failed to act on every matter relating to immigration so far in the Trump Administration.

House Republicans  put forward two immigration bills they initially claimed would end the separation of families, but the bills would not have ended the practice. Congressional Republicans  did not advance legislation that would check what the Trump Administration did to families on the border — nor did they seriously try to uncover the full extent of the zero tolerance policy or hold Trump Administration officials accountable.

The white nationalist roots of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller has been identified as the “mastermind” behind the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Recently, the New York Times reported that “Mr. Miller was instrumental in Mr. Trump’s decision to ratchet up the zero tolerance policy.” Last year, The Guardian reported Stephen Miller was also the policy architect behind the Muslim travel ban. Earlier this year, the New Yorker reported that Miller pressured the Administration to end temporary protected status (TPS) for Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Haitians living in the United States.

The reason Miller’s policies look like a page out of the white nationalist playbook is because Miller has long identified with members of that movement. Miller even helped white nationalist Richard Spencer raise money for an immigration debate at Duke University.

Stephen Miller’s white nationalist policies have no place in America — let alone the White House. Kids don’t belong in cages and families belong together.

Who opposes the separation of families?

Just about everyone opposes the Trump Administration’s horrifying new policy of separating children from their parents. Polls from Quinnipiac and CNN have found 2-1 majorities against the separation of families.

More and more pediatricians are raising alarm bells. The President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), pediatricians who serve on the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, and the president emeritus of the Children’s Defense Fund all agree Trump’s separation policy “shows contempt for this basic impulse of a parent to protect a child and fosters deep and lasting harm for children.”  

Two dozen leaders from the largest religious groups in the U.S. oppose Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Many Congressional Democrats have spoken out against the practice, and a number of House Democrats staged an act of civil disobedience on Capitol Hill.

Dozens of celebrities have spoken out.

So have countless op-eds and editorial boards.

How you can help

Slate has an ongoing compilation of organizations and groups that are working to help children and families. Find the list and donate to them here.

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