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The Cruelty Was the Point of Trump’s Family Separation Horror Show

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On this day in May 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III stepped in front of cameras and assembled press to formally announce that it would be the official policy of the United States to tear children, including nursing infants and toddlers, from the arms of parents seeking safety and freedom for themselves and their families. It would mark one of the darkest days in modern U.S. history.

“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions chillingly announced. “It’s that simple…. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

But there was no evidence of widespread smuggling. The Trump administration was instead using this as a ruse to criminally prosecute all parents crossing the border with children, whether at a port of entry or not. Kids, no matter how young, would be ripped away while their parents faced prosecution, frequently thousands of miles apart from each other. What we didn’t know then but do know now is that officials were also tearing apart families with no mechanism in place to put them back together. “DHS Had No Database to Track Migrant Children Separated From Their Parents,” Slate reported in 2018.

Experts would describe family separation as “torture.” While Sessions publicly announced the policy in May 2018, the Trump administration had already been taking children beginning in 2017 as part of its “pilot program” in the El Paso sector. “No exceptions were made for parents arriving with young children,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said. Court documents would eventually reveal that Donald Trump separated more than 5,500 children during his time in office.


While Sessions and former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were the public faces of these separations, it was noted white nationalist Stephen Miller who was the architect of the policy. Behind the scenes, the White House aide pushed for the separation of as many as 25,000 children and, at one point, berated top administration officials for perceived delays in separations. “If we don’t enforce this, it is the end of our country as we know it,” he reportedly claimed during a May 2018 meeting. So he made them vote on proceeding, NBC News said. “Frustrated, Miller accused Nielsen of stalling and demanded a show of hands. Who was in favor of moving forward? he asked. A sea of hands went up. Nielsen kept hers down. It was clear she had been outvoted, according to the officials.” One official told NBC News that Miller “was tired of hearing about logistical problems.”

In a meeting with U.S. attorneys that same month, Sessions called for no mercy. “‘We need to take away children,’ Mr. Sessions told the prosecutors, according to participants’ notes,” The New York Times reported in 2020. Sessions’ then-deputy, Rod Rosenstein, was just as extreme, “telling the five prosecutors that it did not matter how young the children were. He said that government lawyers should not have refused to prosecute two cases simply because the children were barely more than infants.” 

In a 2021 report from the Department of Justice inspector general, both men were described as “a driving force” behind the policy. Following the report’s release, Rosenstein issued a statement purportedly expressing regret. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented,” he said. Sessions, however, refused to be interviewed, protected by the fact that former employees can’t be forced to submit to an interview. But Sessions always made clear he was proud of his actions, at one point citing Biblical scripture to defend the state-sanctioned kidnapping of children. “Later Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders doubled down on Sessions’ comments, saying it is ‘very biblical to enforce the law.’” NBC News reported.


In several of the lawsuits filed by families against the Trump administration over the policy, parents described being told by federal immigration officials that they would never see their children again. “Some were taken under the guise of being given baths,” The Washington Post reported in 2019. Some parents were even told that their children would be put up for adoption. 

One of these parents, identified as M.S.E. in court documents, said she wasn’t even given a chance to hug her son goodbye before officials took him away. She described repeatedly asking officers about her son, “but they never explained what happened to J.M. Instead, the officers said M.S.E. and the other parents would be deported, and their children would be put up for adoption. They told M.S.E. to forget about her son.” Two months would pass before the two would be reunited. Like other children harmed under zero tolerance, J.M. appeared “withdrawn” and “very sad for a long time. He even began cutting himself,” documents said.

Physicians for Human Rights said in a 2020 report that in all cases documented by their experts, “there was a period where parents were unaware of their children’s whereabouts, could not contact them and had no assurance of, or timeline for, eventual contact or reunification. “Parents who asked U.S. officials about the wellbeing and whereabouts of their children were not given answers for weeks and months at a time.”


These same experts from Physicians for Human Rights said that the Trump administration’s family separation policy constituted “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” and, in all cases evaluated by the organization’s experts, constituted torture.

“In the cases that PHR documented, U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering, in order to punish, coerce, and intimidate Central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims, in a discriminatory manner,” the report said. “Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are violations of human rights and are prohibited under domestic and international law in any and all circumstances.” 

Experts further said that “concealment and lack of contact” constituted enforced disappearance, “which occurs when state agents conceal the fate or whereabouts of a person who is deprived of liberty.” Physicians for Human Rights said that in cases included in the study, “there was a period where parents were unaware of their children’s whereabouts and were not able to contact them.” 

The term “enforced disappearance” has usually been associated with human rights abuses in dictatorial regimes in Chile and Argentina, where authorities “disappeared” political dissidents. The Trump administration shamefully brought this to our shores, and was a foreshadowing of the authoritarianism Trump has embraced as he seeks to regain the White House. He’s pledged to be a dictator “on day one” should he win the 2024 election.


In a study published in a medical journal in 2021, experts found that separated children continued to meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a year after reunification. One child, an 8-year-old boy, continued to meet criteria for PTSD, as well as separation anxiety disorder, two years after reunification. “The evaluating clinicians noted that the children exhibited reactions that included regression in age-appropriate behaviors, such as crying, not eating, having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, excessive parental attachment, clinging to caregivers, urinary incontinence, and recurring feelings of fear following reunification with their parents,” experts said in the peer-reviewed PLOS One journal.

None of this should have been a shock to the Trump administration. Career officials had in fact warned of the traumatic effects of separating children from their families, but it was ignored. This incalculable trauma was evident immediately after a court ordered the reunification of families in June 2018. In a video of one reunification, a toddler is shown rejecting the embrace of his grief-stricken mother. “I’m your mommy,” she cried to the child. Looking at her husband, she asked, “Ever, what is wrong with my son?” The child pushed his way out of her arms, leaving his mother to weep. “What happened?” she pleaded. Yet shocking internal emails revealed that Trump officials had actually complained that court-mandated reunifications were actually happening too quickly. 


Trump has refused to rule out reinstating the zero-tolerance policy should he win the 2024 presidential election despite the fact that roughly 1,400 children remain separated due to this vastly unpopular policy, many because they were quickly deported to Central America without their kids.

Advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union, KIND, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center have provided on-the-ground assistance reuniting families, a frequently exhausting process now also aided by the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force. The Washington Post newly reports that while the Biden administration’s efforts have reunited about 800 children, an additional 1,400 kids are still without their parents.

“The numbers shift over time, in part because the legal landscape changes. In October, for example, a case filed in June 2018 — Ms. L. v. U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement — was finally settled. That settlement meant that about 350 children were added to the pool of those needing to be reunified with their families because the boundaries of what qualified as a separation had changed.”

During the height of the family separation crisis in 2018, some Republicans broke ranks to condemn Trump’s separations. But in continued proof of the GOP’s descent on immigration, Trump’s allies are now defending his cruel and inhumane actions. Trump’s former acting DHS Secretary, Chad Wolf, testified to Congress that family separation “should be on the table.” Florida Rep. Anna Paulina Luna unequivocally stated her support during a House hearing in January, saying that “we want family separation.” As Adam Serwer famously wrote in his 2018 piece, the cruelty is the point. And they want more of it.

“Donald Trump’s family separation policy generated national and international outrage, including bipartisan condemnation and a collective pledge that our nation was better than this,” said America’s Voice Executive Director Vanessa Cárdenas. “Unfortunately, instead of leaving that dark chapter of our recent history in the past, Trump is now promising to go further in a potential second term – including relying on the National Guard and military to do mass roundups of long-settled immigrants who are our neighbors, co-workers, family members, classmates, and friends.”