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Immigration 101: Why is the Trump Administration Separating Immigrant Families And Detaining Immigrant Children?


The Trump Administration is now separating immigrant families who try to come through the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation. The parents are being sent to federal jails to face criminal prosecution. The children are detained in separate facilities for an indefinite amount of time, separated from their parents as well as their siblings, living in cages prison-like conditions.


On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance policy” which “prohibits both attempted illegal entry and illegal entry into the United States by an alien.” As he said:

I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border.  If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple…So if you’re going to come to this country, come here legally.  Don’t come here illegally.

The Trump Administration had been considering separating families at the border since shortly after Trump took office, but had initially shelved the plan for being too controversial. Now that it is being implemented, the humanitarian implications of the new policy have been both widespread and devastating.

As a result of the new policy, the Department of Homeland Security has been 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 being taken away from their parents while parents face prosecution, and the Trump Administration has said many times what their intention is — to deter future parents and children from coming.

In just the first few weeks under Trump’s new family separation policy, 658 children were taken from parents. Now, that number is up to more than 2,000. There is so little room left to house children at government facilities that the Trump Administration has opened “tent cities” along the Texas border.

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. As a result, according to an expose by NBC News, children are left in unsafe conditions at border stations longer than necessary and in violation of the law.  

Children are being taken away even when they are just a few months old. In some cases, even after the parents have been deported, the government is hanging onto their children and preventing families from being reunited.

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 this prior policy, though the prior policy was repeatedly violated under 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 features children crying, and an agent making light of it
  • Video footage provided by Customs and Border Protection shows children in cages and under thin space blankets

The Trump Administration’s lack of transparency

Even as it is now clear that thousands of children have been separated from their parents, the Trump Administration continues to deny that this is happening.

Secretary Nielsen was supposed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee shortly after the policy was implemented, but the hearing was cancelled. On June 18, 2018, she said at an event, “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border, Period”, and was mercilessly called on on Twitter.

The Trump Administration has 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 are tasked with applying this new policy. Members of Congress and members of the media have not consistently been granted access to detention centers where children are being held. When they are allowed access, they are 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.

The Trump Administration’s wrongful blaming of Democrats

Even though the Trump Administration is responsible for this policy, and even though Republicans control 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.’”

To be clear, the Republican-led Congress could certainly pass a law that prevents the Trump Administration from separating families. But they have not yet acted, just as they’ve failed to act on every matter relating to immigration so far in the Trump Administration.

This week, there are two immigration bills that House Republicans may vote on. They initially claimed that these bills would end the separation of families, but this is not true. Congressional Republicans have yet to advance legislation that would check what the Trump Administration is doing to families on the border.

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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