Near the end of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, he started a pilot program to separate families at the border in El Paso, Texas without designing a clear system to track the children or reunite them with their parents. Any migrants crossing the U.S. border illegally, including asylum-seekers, were detained and criminally charged.
In May of 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) officially decreed a “zero-tolerance” policy dictating that all migrants crossing the border illegally, including asylum-seekers, were to face prosecution under the DOJ, while any child under the age of 18 would be separated and redirected to one of 100 Offices of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters or other care facilities. Previously, families were detained or paroled into the U.S. together as a unit.
After operating the pilot program for over a year, news outlets releasing abuse allegations and the previously mentioned #AbolishICE movement began leading the DHS to acknowledge the separation policy for the first time. At this point, the U.S. government had separated at least 2,000 children from their parents, the DHS confirmed.
Allegations against the detention centers, including ones claiming that children were being kept in cages with nothing more than a bag of chips and a tinfoil blanket, along with released audio clips from inside of a U.S Customs and Border Protection facility, led to President Trump’s executive action directing DHS to stop family separations on June 20, 2018.
“We are going to have very strong borders, but we are going to keep families together,” Trump said in a press conference. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
Despite Trump’s executive order, the family separations did not stop for years. In January 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Trump administration’s official count of separated children was 4,368. The number is very likely larger, as flaws the U.S government’s record-keeping system leave many children unaccounted for. This count also includes over a thousand children who were separated after Trump’s executive order to stop the program, according to The Intercept.
Alongside the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) Deputy Editor Farzana Kapadia and New York University professor Diana Silver, Founding Director of Northwestern’s Deportation Research Clinic Jacqueline Stevens published a report on U.S. asylum-seekers with AJPH. It revealed that unaccompanied migrant children and asylum-seekers were subjected to flawed and often harmful dental radiographs to prove that they were under 18-years-old. These dental exams are rarely accurate and cannot determine the difference between a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old, let alone between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old. The report claimed that the practice ultimately labels more children as adults and sends them to ICE jails.
An interim report published by the Deportation Research Clinic sponsored by Stevens found that U.S. officers were illegally transporting detained migrant children from pricey government shelters to ICE jails. The report also alleged that the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) forged medical documents and disregarded official policies to move the children.
“Along with keeping adults out of facilities meant for minors, officials from the Office of Refugee and Resettlement are placing unaccompanied children into ICE jails,” the interim report said. “We found ORR collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, violating the policies for placement, and also writing bogus reports that could hurt children’s asylum claims.”
In May of 2019, NBC News reported that at least seven children had died under U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody after nearly a decade of no reported child. The combination of the nature of the detention centers, the reports of abuse and the adverse long-term effects of family separation led to an outrage across the country. Every living first lady publicly voiced their opposition to the policies on social media.
“[When I was first lady] I visited Thailand and witnessed firsthand the trauma of parents and children separated by circumstances beyond their control,” former First Lady Rosalynn Carter said in a tweet in June 2018. “The practice and policy today of removing children from their parents’ care at our border with Mexico is disgraceful and a shame to our country.”
Nearly three years after the El Paso pilot program was launched, the parents of 545 children who were separated at the border still cannot be located, according to a Texas Tribune article from October 2020.
*Article thumbnail "Donald Trump" by Gage Skidmore is licensed for use under CC BY-SA 2.0.