On June 18, 2018, as reporters waited for a briefing by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, ProPublica posted a recording of crying children begging for their parents just after being separated from them, which the reporters listened to as they waited for her to speak. Nielsen arrived and spoke, blaming Congress for the administration's policy of separating parents from their children and saying that there would be no change in policy until Congress rewrote the nation's immigration laws. At one point during the briefing, New York magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi played the tape. Nielsen refused to answer any questions about the material in the tape, such as "How is this not child abuse?"
The tape was made on June 17 when human rights advocates and journalists toured an old warehouse where hundreds of children were being kept in wire cages. The Associated Press reported that the children had no books or toys, overhead lighting was kept on around the clock, and the children were sleeping under foil sheets. There was no adult supervision and the older children were changing the diapers of the toddlers. Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission commented, "If a parent left a child in a cage with no supervision with other 5-year-olds, they’d be held accountable". Most of the tape consists of children crying and wailing for their parents, but a six-year-old girl is heard to repeatedly beg that her aunt be called, who she is certain will come and pick her up. She had memorized her aunt's phone number and ProPublica was able to contact the aunt, but the aunt was unable to assist for fear that her own petition of asylum would be put in jeopardy due to the recent Trump Administration decision to discontinue asylum protections for victims of gang and domestic violence. The aunt said that she was able to keep in touch with her niece by phone and that she had talked to her sister; however, her sister had not yet been allowed to speak with her child. The aunt said that the authorities had told the child that her mother may be deported without her.
Commenting on Trump's executive order and how it was related to the tape of the children crying, Republican commentator Leslie Sanchez commented on Face the Nation, "And a lot of Republicans I talked to, even bundlers, people that put big amounts of money together, said, when they heard the cries of the children, without visual, being separated, that was the moment where America knew this was too far. And that's when the president retreated."
ProPublica followed the child, Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, and her mother and reported that in August they were reunited. A short video was posted in December 2018 which reports that Alison and her mother are learning English and Alison is going to school. Alison's mother said that gang members in El Salvadore had attempted to kidnap her daughter and she had fled to the U.S. to protect her. Their future remains uncertain.
There are concerns that the facilities that children were held in may have in the past been associated with the forcible drugging of children. The Texas Tribune reported that detained children who had previously been held at the Shiloh Treatment Center said they had been forcibly treated with antipsychotic drugs by the facility personnel, based on legal filings from a class action lawsuit. According to the filings, the drugs made the children listless, dizzy and incapacitated, and in some cases unable to walk. According to a mother, after receiving the drug, her child repeatedly fell, hitting her head and eventually ending up in a wheel chair. Another child said she tried to open a window, at which point one of the supervisors hurled her against a door, choked her until she fainted and had a doctor forcibly administer an injection while she was being held down by two guards. A forensic psychiatrist consulted by the Tribune compared the practice to what "the old Soviet Union used to do".
The treatment center is one of the companies that have been investigated on charges of mistreating children, although the federal government continues to employ the private agency which runs it as a federal contractor.
On July 30, 2018, a federal judge ruled that government officials have been in violation of state child welfare laws when giving psychotropic drugs to migrant children without first seeking the consent of their parents or guardians. According to the ruling given by Judge Dolly Gee, staff members have admitted to signing off on medications in lieu of a parent, relative, or guardian. The judge also ordered that the government must move all children from the facility except for those deemed by a licensed professional to pose a "risk of harm" to themselves or others.
From 2014 to 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement received 4,556 allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment of immigrant children, 1,303 of which were referred to US Justice Department.
Government data from 2018 suggests that the family separation policy did little to deter migrants from crossing the US border illegally.
In June 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of two mothers (one from Brazil, one from Democratic Republic of the Congo) who had been separated from their children, seeking a halt to the policy. On June 25, the ACLU requested an injunction halting the policy. On June 26, US District Judge Dana Sabraw of the US District Court for the Southern District of California issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the family-separation policy.
In his opinion, Sabraw wrote: "The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance—responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government's own making. They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution. This is particularly so in the treatment of migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers and small children." Sabraw wrote that the federal government "readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings", yet "has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children". The injunction barred the US government from separating parents and children at the border unless the adults presented a danger to children, and required the government to reunite separated families within 30 days, to reunite children under five with their parents within 14 days, and to permit all separated minors to speak with their parents within ten days.
In March 2019, Judge Sabraw issued a preliminary ruling which would potentially expand the number of migrants included in the American Civil Liberties lawsuit after newly released government documents identified thousands more families that had been separated as early as July 1, 2017. In his ruling Sabraw called the documents "undisputed" and commented, "The hallmark of a civilized society is measured by how it treats its people and those within its borders."
Judge Sabraw set a status hearing for July 6, 2018. On July 6, the Trump administration asked for more time to reunite migrant families separated, highlighting the challenge of confirming familial relationship between parents and children, with parents of 19 of 101 detained children under the age of five already deported according to a Department of Justice lawyer. The Judge set another deadline of Tuesday (July 10) for reunification, and gave the government until Saturday evening to create a list of all 101 youngest children along with an explanation of proposed difficulties. With the list the Judge believed that the two sides would be able to have "an intelligent conversation Monday (July 9) morning about which child can be reunited July 10, which can not—and then the court can determine whether it makes sense to relax the deadline".
Charging the Trump Administration with initiating new government screening policies designed to bar immigrants from entering the country by preventing them from getting a fair hearing, on August 7, 2018, the ACLU filed a lawsuit which focuses on migrants who have been placed in fast-track deportation proceedings known as "expedited removal". The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 migrants who failed their "credible fear" interviews, one of the first steps for asylum seekers in the fast-track removal process.
On June 26, 2018, a separate legal challenge to the family separation was brought by 17 states (California, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) against the Trump administration. The suit was filed in the US District Court in Seattle. The plaintiff states, all of whom have Democratic state attorneys general, challenge the forcible separation of families as a "cruel and unlawful" violation of the constitution's Due Process and Equal Protection Clause. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is leading the suit. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who represents California, called Trump's executive order putting a halt to the policy as an "empty and meaningless order that claims to take back policies that he [Trump] put in place himself as a political stunt".
In a new motion filed on July 2, the group asked for immediate information and access to those who are being detained. The motion included more than 900 pages of declarations from family members as well as others who have been involved in the separation of the families. On July 5, PBS Newshour reported on 12 of the 99 declarations that they believe "offer a window into what's has been happening under the family separation policy". PBS included information from the declaration of one mother who wrote that her 1-year-old son was taken from her at a legal point of entry in November. She said that when they were reunited after three months, he cried continually, and when she removed his clothing, she found him to be dirty and infected with lice. Others spoke of multiple detainees, including young children, held in very small rooms or cages, sometimes "freezing" cold, and without adequate bathroom facilities. Several others wrote of a lack of food, including food for children. One woman wrote that she was kept in a cell with nearly 50 other mothers, and they were told "that they could not eat because they were asking about their children".
On August 23, 2018, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council filed a complaint with DHS alleging the "pervasive, and illegal, practice of coercing separated mothers and fathers into signing documents they may not have understood". According to the complaint, "the trauma of separation and detention creates an environment that is by its very nature coercive and makes it extremely difficult for parents to participate in legal proceedings affecting their rights". It also describes the use of "physical and verbal threats, the denial of food and water, the use of solitary confinement, the use of starvation, restrictions on feminine-hygiene products, and the use of pre-filled forms".
Separately, a Guatemalan woman filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington challenging the Trump administration's practice on June 19, before the executive order. It is one of a small number of similar court challenges, with demands such as the immediate release of the child, an order prohibiting US authorities from separating the family, and money for damages of pain and suffering.
Another lawsuit is that of a 9-year-old boy from Honduras who, according to the family, had fled with his father after his grandfather was murdered, was detained at the border and was separated from his father while sleeping. Another case is that of a 14-year-old girl who, so the lawsuit, had fled persecution in El Salvador and was lured away from her mother at a detention facility in Texas under the pretext of taking her to bathe. In both cases, the child was brought thousands of miles away.
On September 5, 2018, a federal lawsuit was filed to seek monetary damages on the basis of the inflicted psychological harm and the creation of a fund to support the mental health treatment of the children.
In 1997 the Flores settlement was signed into law. It says migrant children must be detained in the least-restrictive setting possible and only for about 20 days. On June 21, 2018, the Department of Justice (DoJ) asked US District Court Judge Dolly Gee to alter her 2015 ruling in Reno v. Flores on the conditions of family detention by the Department of Homeland Security. The government seeks to end a 20-day limit on family detention and to end the requirement that children be held in day care centers that are state-licensed. The DoJ filing claims that limits on detention must be ended due to "a destabilizing migratory crisis". Attorney Peter Schey, who represents the child plaintiffs in Flores, vowed to oppose the filing. He filed an opposition on the grounds of there having been no significant change in circumstances warranting such a revision of the ruling. On June 29, the DoJ filed a statement that in future the Government will ″detain families together during the pendency of immigration proceedings when they are apprehended at or between ports of entry″ in place of separating them.
On July 9, Judge Gee denied the government's request to hold families together indefinitely in ICE facilities, and its request to exempt detention facilities from state licensing requirements for that purpose. Gee wrote: "Absolutely nothing prevents Defendants from reconsidering their current blanket policy of family detention and reinstating prosecutorial discretion."
On August 21, 2019, the Trump administration announced it was ending the Flores Agreement and replacing it with a new policy scheduled to take place in 60 days. The new policy will allow families with children to be detained indefinitely, until their cases are decided. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have sued the Trump administration to block the administration plan to end the Flores Agreement. They claim that the new policy will result in the expansion of unlicensed detention centers allowing the administration to "set its own standards for care—in effect, licensing itself".
Following the suspension of the policy in June 2018, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testified that the Department would reunite children with their detained parents only if Congress passed legislation lifting the 20-day limit on family detention required under the Flores settlement.
On July 9, the government stated that the number of parents deported alone and the number of parents released to the United States alone were each nine, rather than 19. As of that date, two parents of children younger than five had been reunited. The government said that more than fifty parents would be reunited with their small children on July 10, and that they would be released from ICE custody into the United States after being reunited. DoJ lawyer Sarah Fabian said that of the 102 children, 75 were eligible for release and 27 could not be immediately be reunited for various reasons.
An HHS official reported that of the 102 children, 38 had been returned to their families by Tuesday evening, and that more reunions were to continue "throughout the night". The administration gave reasons why the remaining 64 children were not united by the deadline. According to the administration, in one case, parent and child may both be US citizens.
On July 23, the administration stated that 879 parents had been reunited with their children, another 538 have been cleared for reunification, further 463 parents had cases that were still under review, and further 454 were either considered not eligible or were not yet known to be eligible for reunification with their children. More than 450 parents may have already been deported without their children. On July 26, 1,637 children were deemed eligible for reunification and 711 were deemed not eligible. So far, 1,442 had been reunited. Those deemed not eligible included 431 whose parents may have been deported and 120 with parents who waived reunification.
On June 26, 2018, responding to an ACLU class action lawsuit, a federal judge ordered all separated children, except where not appropriate, be reunited with their parent within 30 days.
Authorities separated families without a plan to reunite them, resulting in numerous cases of parents and children having no contact since being forcefully separated. There were numerous reports of separated parents not being able to locate or contact their children due to lack of a proper system in place.
A Boston Globe investigation called the application of the family separation policy "opaque", reporting that Border Patrol, judges, government case workers, public defenders, and federal prosecutors had no clear answers about the reunification process or how separated parents can contact their children. Reportedly, it was difficult to reconnect children to their parents because children and parents entered two separate systems: parents were put in ICE custody and then entered the US Department of Homeland Security to face criminal prosecution while children were classified as an "unaccompanied alien child" and transferred to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Therefore, authorities no longer tracked them as a family unit and there was no system in place to reunite them. According to the Boston Globe report, in May 2018, parents in the McAllen facility reportedly had no phones available for their use and, when demanded, were given a false phone number to call HHS to locate their children, then were a given a number to ICE. A federal public defender working at the facility called the prospect of parents being deported without their children a "tragedy". John Sandweg, the former head of ICE, agreed saying, "You could easily end up in a situation where the gap between a parent's deportation and a child's deportation is years", and that many children might never see their parents again.
Representative Pramila Jayapal met with dozens of mothers separated from their children, and reported that in some cases, some Border Patrol agents allegedly told the mothers that "their families don't exist anymore". In May 2018, a Honduran man, Marco Antonio Muñoz, 39, committed suicide after his 3-year-old son was forcibly taken and separated from him by Border Patrol Agents. The man had crossed the Rio Grande with his son and his wife and turned himself and his family in to authorities to ask for asylum.
A journalist working for The New Yorker spoke with several women incarcerated at the Otero County Prison, a privately run facility in New Mexico, and an attorney representing them. One mother said that she had no idea where her child was and was concerned that his medical conditions were not being attended to. Another mother said that of the fifty mothers in her wing at Otero, few knew where their children were. The public defender said the family separation policy was "changing the lawyer-client relationship," saying "clients don't even care about beating the charge they're facing. It makes it harder to represent them, because all they want is to be with their children."
Despite numerous reports of separations in which parents were not given information about their children, Senator James Lankford, speaking on Meet the Press blamed "media that's not been responsible with this" for reports of difficulties locating parents or children. Calling the government personnel working for the various agencies that have been handling the separations "professionals", he said, "They know where every child is to be able to connect them to their parent or their relative that came."
Following a court order by District Judge Dana Sabraw to reunite all parents with their children by July 26, 2018 it was revealed that about 500 parents had already been deported. Judge Sabraw commented, "What was lost in the process was the family. The parents didn't know where the children were, and the children didn't know where the parents were. And the government didn't know either." On August 2, the Justice Department filed in court that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should take responsibility for reuniting families, rather than the federal government. The ACLU responded by stating that while they are ready to help, the burden of responsibility for finding parents of minors separated at the border was the government's responsibility.
In February 2019, administration officials said that removing children from "sponsor" homes to rejoin their parents "would present grave child welfare concerns", and they would not focus any efforts on reuniting parents with children who had already been sent to foster homes.
The policy attracted significant condemnation from a wide array of sources including medical, scientific, religious and human rights groups. A June 2018 survey found it to be very unpopular with the public, with approximately 25 percent of Americans supporting the policy. Some politicians and observers have compared the detainment of children by the US government to concentration camps.
The policy has been condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, with the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that the policy has caused "irreparable harm" to the children. Together, they represent more than 250,000 doctors in the United States. Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris described the family separation policy as "a recipe for toxic stress". Dr. Irwin Redlener, who co-founded Children's Health Fund, called the policy "dehumanizing" and described it as a form of child abuse. A number of concerned researchers and clinicians signed an open letter to Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen calling on her to end the migrant child separations, writing, "Decades of psychological and brain research have demonstrated that forced parental separation and placement in incarceration-like facilities can have profound immediate, long-term, and irreparable harm on infant and child development."
Many religious groups also oppose the policy including many Christian organizations such as:
In response to a criticism of the policy by a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the policy, citing the Bible. On June 18, a group of more than 600 United Methodist Church clergy and laity announced that they were bringing church law charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The members of the group accused Sessions of "child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of the doctrine of the United Methodist Church". The last charge refers to Sessions' "misuse" of Romans 13, which he quoted to argue that secular law must always be obeyed.
All four major denominations of American Judaism oppose the policy:
Islamic organizations also oppose the policy.
Pope Francis supports statements by US Catholic bishops who had called the policy "contrary to our Catholic values" and "immoral", adding "It's not easy, but populism is not the solution."
Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, called the practice "disgraceful" and said that "it's terrible to see families ripped apart and I don't support that one bit." Graham did not, however, attach blame to Trump or his administration, but rather blamed "the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to where it is today".
Many professors and administrators in colleges and universities have likened the policy to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Open letters signed by various scholars denounced the policy and called for its halt.
A large number of civil rights groups, humanitarian organizations, and other groups condemned the family separation policy, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of Women Voters of the United States, the International Rescue Committee, the NAACP, and the National Immigration Law Center.
The Tahirih Justice Center has criticized that the policy of charging asylum seekers with a criminal offense, and subsequent separation of families, is contrary to Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. This Article prohibits any party to the Convention from imposing penalties on asylum seekers on account of their illegal entry or presence, provided the asylum seekers present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. Thus according to international law, such asylum seekers are not liable to criminal prosecution for illegal entry. The United States ratified the 1967 Protocol of the Refugee Convention in 1968, and thereby obliged itself to adhere to Articles 2 through 34 of the Convention.
The director for the Americas at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, Erika Guevara Rosas, has said that the "severe mental suffering that officials have intentionally inflicted on these families for coercive purposes, means that these acts meet the definitions of torture under both US and international law".
Forty Democratic United States Senators sent a letter to Trump urging him to "rescind this unethical, ineffective, and inhumane policy and instead prioritize approaches that align with our humanitarian and American values". In response to the policy, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill, Keep Families Together Act (S. 3036), under which the separation of a child from its parents would be allowed only under very specific conditions. By June 18, the entire Democratic caucus of 49 senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats) had signed on as cosponsors.
Republicans in Congress fell into four groups on the child-separation policy:
Republican Senator Ted Cruz initially defended the policy in a June 11 interview. On June 18, despite his previous support of the policy, Cruz announced that he would introduce his own legislation, criticizing the Democrats' bill as "returning to the failed policy of 'catch and release'". Cruz said his bill would end the separation policy by authorizing the construction of shelters to house families, expedite asylum cases, and increase the number of federal immigration judges. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Cruz's proposal, arguing that the Republicans would include "unacceptable additions" and instead urged Trump to end the policy using an executive order.
In February 2019, Democratic Representative for Illinois Jan Schakowsky described the family separation policy as "state-sponsored child abuse [and] kidnapping of children".
In early 2018, Trump requested that state governors send National Guard troops to the US–Mexico border. In response to the family-separation policy, at least eight governors either recalled National Guard troops from the US–Mexico border or declined to send them to the border. States that withdrew troops, reversed plans to send troops, or declined to send troops were New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Delaware, and Rhode Island (which have Democratic governors) and Maryland and Massachusetts (which have Republican governors). Democratic Governor John Carney of Delaware, for example, said "Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't hesitate to answer the call. But given what we know about the policies currently in effect at the border, I can't in good conscience send Delawareans to help with that mission." (Some additional states—Vermont and Oregon—had declined Trump's request before the family-separation policy had been implemented.)
Among Republican governors, some supported Trump's policy of separating families (Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Henry McMaster of South Carolina), while others opposed the policy (Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Bruce Rauner of Illinois, John Kasich of Ohio).
The policy has also been condemned by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called it an "unconscionable" effort by a state to deter parents by abusing children.
United Nations special rapporteurs from the Human Rights Council have also condemned the policy, and have stated that detention of children "is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture". The rapporteurs have called its rescission insufficient.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has formally requested additional information from the US government on the location and plans for affected children.
All four living former First Ladies of the United States—Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama—condemned the policy of separating children from their parents. First Lady Melania Trump's office issued a statement saying, "[Mrs. Trump] believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart." Laura Bush wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe condemning the use of practices "reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history".
A bipartisan group of 75 former US attorneys published an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling for an end to the policy, writing that the policy inflicts "unnecessary trauma and suffering of innocent children" and "is a radical departure from previous Justice Department policy" that "is dangerous, expensive, and inconsistent with the values of the institution in which we served". The former US attorneys also pointed out that the policy is not required by law. An employment law firm offered free legal advice to federal and state workers who refused to enforce the policy.
Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano has criticised the policy, stating that he believes that "it is child abuse to separate children from their parents unless it's necessary to save a human life ... there's a federal statute that says you can't separate them more than 72 hours." News anchor Jorge Ramos declared that the policy violated both Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) that forbids torture, and Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that states that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will. The US has signed and ratified the UNCAT, and signed but not yet ratified the CRC.
Family separations were widely condemned in the business community, including by conservative groupings like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
On June 20, 2018, three airlines—American Airlines, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines—each issued a statement requesting the federal government not to use their planes to transport migrant children who were taken from their parents. The previous day, a veteran flight attendant for a major airline recounted an episode in which an ICE agent initially told another flight attendant that the migrant children on their flight were members of a soccer team, but "when pressed, the agent finally admitted that they were, indeed children who were being relocated to assigned camps".
In February 2019, Commander Jonathan White of the Department of Health and Human Services testified that neither he nor his long-term colleagues within the Office of Refugee Resettlement would have supported a policy that would result in the separation of children and parents. He also testified that when, in February 2017, before the implementation of the policy, he had raised concerns about the prospect of family separations, he was consistently told that no such policy was pending.
Beginning in June 2018, protests were held in numerous cities across the nation as plans for a larger nation-wide protests were being formulated. On June 30, a national protest organized by the newly-formed group "Keep Families Together" was held which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters from all 50 states to demonstrate in more than 600 towns and cities. Approximately 30,000 marchers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, chanted, "Immigrants built this bridge." Some demonstration speakers stressed the urgent need for political activism. In Atlanta Representative John Lewis spoke saying, "We've got to get out and vote like we never voted before." Lin-Manuel Miranda performed for the protesters, singing a song from his musical Hamilton, and commented, "We will not stand for a country separating children from their families, and if you are silent on that issue, or you are somehow for that issue you're not getting re-elected."
Inspired by a viral photo of a crying two-year-old girl looking up at her mother, on June 16, 2018, a California couple started a fund-raising campaign on Facebook named "Reunite an immigrant parent with their child" with a goal of raising $1,500. Within the first few days the campaign was raising over $4,000 a minute and in a little over a week's time it had raised over $20 million, breaking a Facebook record for donations. The money will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, and provide legal aid for immigrant parents who have been arrested at the border.
The photograph was taken by professional photographer, John Moore, just after the mother was asked to set her child down to be body-searched before boarding the Border Patrol van and the little girl began to cry. The mother is from Honduras and had been traveling for a month. The photo raised controversy after the father of the child said in an interview that the mother and daughter were now being detained together in McAllen, Texas. This has caused many in Trump's administration to rally against "fake news" with White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders tweeting that the Democrats and media "exploited this photo of a little girl to push their own agenda".
The family-separation policy is unpopular among Americans, as shown by four polls; on average, two-thirds of Americans oppose the policy. There is a strong partisan divide; the average of polls showed that Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the policy (8% support, 87% oppose, 5% other) while a plurality of Republicans favor it (49% support, 35% oppose, 16% other). Trump's approval rating fell to 41 percent, with a 55 percent disapproval rating according to a Gallup poll following increased public awareness of the policy.
According to a report by Gabriel Sherman, the policy caused "chaos" and infighting among the White House staff and advisers. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was "frustrated" according to one of her friends. On the other hand, according to one White House adviser, Stephen Miller "actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border", referring to the photographs of children separated from their parents.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Senator Chuck Grassley and House Speaker Paul Ryan have asserted that the Trump administration are required to separate migrant families due to the 1997 Flores settlement, which requires that unaccompanied minors be released to their parents or relatives, and if a relative cannot be found then a government agency can appoint an appropriate guardian for the child. Trump administration officials also cited the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), a 2008 anti-human trafficking statute, as a justification for the policy. Neither the Flores settlement nor the TVPRA, however, require or recommend family separations.
Following Trump's executive order ending family separation David French criticized the Democrat's position saying, "those of us with a trace of historical memory know that the Trump administration is merely asking the courts and Congress to adopt the Obama administration's legal position. ... But despite this victory, Democrats are still furious. It's not enough to stop child separation. Now, they want to prevent family detention entirely." Conservative commentator Ann Coulter on June 17 dismissed immigrant children as "child actors weeping and crying" and urged Trump not to "fall for it". Fox News television host Laura Ingraham on June 18, 2018, described the facilities where migrant children were housed as "essentially summer camps". She described criticism of the immigration policies as "faux liberal outrage". Also on June 18, conservative commentator and author Ben Shapiro pointed to the 2016 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Flores v. Lynch, which he said "meant that the government either had to release whole families, or that the government had to separate parents from children".
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade defended Trump's family separation policy, arguing that migrant children are being treated as though they are more important than "people in our country who pay taxes and have needs as well". He states, "Like it or not, these aren't our kids. Show them compassion, but it's not like [Trump is] doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country."
On June 19, 2018, a fact checker for The Washington Post critiqued a number of statements by Trump and members of his administration, characterizing them as "Orwellian stuff" and designating them as Four Pinocchios—the Post's highest rating of falsehood. The Trump administration had offered at least 14 contradictory statements about its policy, including contradictions about whether it was a Justice Department policy, whether separations are a deterrent, whether there was a prepared process to separate families, and whether separations are required by law. Trump has also said that he could not reverse his administration's policy via executive order, while later writing an executive order to reverse the policy.
Trump said in response to the situation: "I hate to see separation of parents and children ... I hate the children being taken away." Trump has blamed the Democrats for "that law" (also calling it "their law" and "the horrible law") on a number of occasions despite there being no law to mandate the separation of migrant parents and children. The Trump administration's own "zero tolerance" policy, announced on April 6, 2018, is responsible for spurring the separations. Trump also said he "certainly wouldn't sign the more moderate" immigration bill proposed by leaders of the House of Representatives with input from moderate Republicans and the White House.
On June 20, 2018, Trump announced that he would sign an executive order to end family separations, saying "We're going to keep families together but we still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime." He did so later the same day.
On June 22, 2018, Trump sent a tweet saying that congressional Republicans should "stop wasting their time on immigration" and should wait until after the November midterm elections to pass immigration legislation. Trump continued to attempt to rally support, by hosting "Angel Families" families whose loved ones had been killed by illegal immigrants (at the White House on June 23). Fact checks following Trump's press conference noted that illegal immigrants are 25% less likely than native-born Americans to commit homicide and are 11.5% less likely to commit sexual assault than native-born Americans, that when more illegal immigrants move into a neighborhood, violent crime goes down.
Trump has repeatedly and falsely said that he inherited the family separation policy from the previous president, Barack Obama. In November 2018, Trump said: "President Obama separated children from families, and all I did was take the same law, and then I softened the law". In April 2019, Trump said: "President Obama separated children. They had child separation; I was the one that changed it". In June 2019, Trump said: "President Obama had a separation policy. I didn't have it. He had it. I brought the families together. I'm the one that put them together ... I inherited separation, and I changed the plan". Trump's assertion was false because the Obama administration had no policy systematically separating migrant families, while the "zero tolerance" policy was only instituted by Trump's own administration in April 2018. PolitiFact quoted immigration experts that "family separations were relatively rare", and at a lower scale, before the Trump administration.
During a June 18, 2018, White House press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security|Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen contended that during the first five months of fiscal 2018, there was a "314% increase in adults showing up with kids [posing as] a family unit. Those are traffickers, those are smugglers, that is MS-13, those are criminals, those are abusers." Using DHS data, analysis by The Washington Post found that such groups constituted 0.61% of "family units" apprehended at the border during that period.
In the same press conference she said, "We now care for them. ... We have high standards. We give them meals. We give them education. We give them medical care. There's videos, there's TVs ..." and stated when asked about family separation that a "vast majority" of children held are unaccompanied minors. On June 19, 2018, Nielsen was heckled by protesters shouting "Shame! Shame! ... If kids don't eat in peace, you don't eat in peace", as she ate in a Mexican restaurant.
Sessions played an important role in implementing the family separation policy, as he instructed hesitant U.S. attorneys along the border with Mexico to go through with the policy.
Following Christian opposition to the policy, Sessions controversially defended it by citing the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament, saying "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Several commentators have noted that before the Civil War, Romans 13 was traditionally used by advocates of slavery to justify it, and to attack abolitionists.
On June 19, 2018, Sessions disputed claims by former CIA Director Michael Hayden that the separation of the immigrant families at the border was similar to Nazi concentration camps. During the interview he said that the comparisons were inaccurate as the Nazis "were keeping the Jews from leaving the country". In the same interview, he said that if the parents are deported the children return with them, but if the parents claim asylum and stay the children are put into HHS custody.
In April 2019, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said that the Trump administration "always intended to" reunited separated families.
In July 2019, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Chief of Law Enforcement Operations Brian Hastings, testified before Congress that CBP deported parents without any knowledge on whether the child was reunited with their parents before the deportation. Hastings said that questions on reunification should be directed to HHS. Hastings additionally testified that there was no "minimum time" between telling migrant parents that a family separation would occur and the actual family separation.
On June 20, 2018, Trump signed Executive Order 13841, titled "Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation", that restricts family separation but maintains many of the key components of the Administration's immigration policy. The Order instructs the Department of Homeland Security to maintain custody of parents and children jointly, "to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations". It also instructs the Justice Department to attempt to overturn the Flores Agreement, which limited the time for holding children and families with children to 20 days, allowing children to be detained indefinitely. The order directs other agencies, including the Pentagon to create or procure spaces to house the family units, however the family unit will not be maintained if there is fear for the child's welfare.
At the signing ceremony, Trump said, "We're going to have strong, very strong borders but we are going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated." Trump emphasised that families would be kept together, yet zero tolerance would continue.
At least two senior aides said that Republican Party leadership had no formal notice from the White House that there was planned executive action. The Chief Federal Public Defender in Southern Texas, Marjorie Meyers said that her official initially received no information about how the order would play out.
Following the issue of the executive order, HHS stated that the status of children already detained would not be affected by the executive order, and that they would not be immediately reunited with their families. However, it was later reported that the statement by Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, that "there will be no grandfathering of existing cases" was based on incorrect information and no decision had been made.
A fact sheet on "Zero-Tolerance Prosecution and Family Reunification" that was released by the Department of Health and Human Services stated that a parent may request that their child be deported with them. However, the agency said that in the past many parents had elected to be deported without their children.
On June 26, 2018, HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified that 2,047 children continued to be held in HHS-contracted facilities. He said that only parents who are deported or who are granted entry to the United States could be reunited with their children. He further testified that HHS would reunite children with their detained parents only if Congress passed legislation lifting the 20-day limit on family detention required under the Flores settlement. Azar also implied that around 250 children formerly in HHS custody had been reunited with family members in the United States, rather with those they had accompanied across the border.
On June 28, 2018, a bill was passed at the initiative of Senator Tom Udall that requires HHS to make information about migrant children in its care publicly available. This obligation includes weekly public updates on its website of the number of children who have been reunited with separated family members, as well as monthly publication of the information on migrant children that the HHS makes available to the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations under the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS) Appropriations Bill.
After the executive order halting the policy was issued, the Trump administration sent out mixed messages amid confusion over "how to begin detaining families together and whether the government would make any effort to reunite parents still in the U.S. with children currently held in separate shelters or foster facilities." On June 22, 2018, the office of John Bash, the U.S. Attorney for Western Texas, said that the family separation policy was still in effect. He spoke of "a necessary transition" during which those who were charged would no longer be transferred to the custody of US Marshals but would stay in the custody of the DHS together with their children. The office confirmed that several cases that had been pending when the executive order had been issued were dismissed as part of that transition.
Parents and children crossing the border illegally were intended to have the same A-file number given to them by immigration officials. Family reunification was complicated by the fact that in many cases families were separated before an A-file number was given, resulting in parents and children receiving different numbers which makes it more difficult to reunite them afterwards. Days after the formal end of the policy, authorities still were not able to tell the separated children how their parents were doing, or where their parents were.
DHS and HHS stated that they "have a process established to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal", and that ICE had "implemented an identification mechanism to ensure on-going tracking of linked family members throughout the detention and removal process". The Port Isabel Service Processing Center was intended to become the primary family reunification and removal center for adults who were in the custody of the ICE. The document did not set out any timeline for reuniting the remaining children that had been separated from their families due to the policy.
The DHS and HHS documents stated that adults who had been processed for removal would have the choice of whether or not their child would accompany them. CNN reported that adult detainees were being offered the opportunity to see their children if they agreed to sign voluntary departure orders, waiving their right to go before a judge. Immigration advocates criticized the policy; Attorney Efrén Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project said, "We have no reason to believe that [voluntary deportation] is the fastest way for parents to be reunited with their children. Putting them in that position is not a voluntary [deportation]; it's being obtained under duress."
HHS also stated that ICE officials had posted notices in all of its facilities advising detained parents who were trying to find or communicate with their children to call a hotline, staffed from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Further according to ICE, the parents can also contact the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) National Call Center, to determine if the child is in custody of HHS.
The June 20, 2018, executive order instructs that "The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary, upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law." On June 21, the Department of Health and Human Services requested facilities to house migrant children. Pentagon spokesmen and a memorandum sent to Congress confirmed that the Department of Defense was preparing facilities at four military bases in Texas and Arkansas—Fort Bliss, Dyess Air Force Base, Goodfellow Air Force Base, and Little Rock Air Force Base—to house 20,000 "unaccompanied alien children". On June 25, the Associated Press reported that Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base had been chosen, and that one will house unaccompanied migrant children, while the other will house migrant families.
On June 22, 2018, Time Magazine reported the contents of an internal Navy planning memorandum that proposed constructing "tent cities" to house migrants in "temporary and austere" facilities at Navy Outlying Field Wolf in Orange Beach, Alabama, Navy Outlying Field Silverhill, and two abandoned airfields near Mobile, Alabama. The memorandum also proposes that up to 47,000 people could be housed at both the former Concord Naval Weapons Station in northern California and Camp Pendleton in southern California. These would be built by the Navy and operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
On June 21, 2018, The Washington Post reported that Customs and Border Protection had suspended criminal referrals for parents arriving across the border with their children. At the time, Justice Department officials said the zero tolerance policy remained in force and they would continue to process all adults for illegal entry.
On June 25, US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan announced a temporary suspension of detaining migrant adults who traveled with children. In this context, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained that the government was "out of resources" and could not hold all the undocumented families coming across the US-Mexico border.
Three agencies were involved in processing immigrant families: Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. These agencies did not have a shared database for tracking migrant families, complied inaccurate summary data on the separation program, failed to consistently connect family members with their detained loved ones, and provided inaccurate information to family members, according to the DHS Inspector General's report. On June 23, 2018, DHS falsely claimed it and HHS had a "central database" for tracking migrants; the Department's Inspector General "found no evidence that such a database exists".
In early July, ORR staff were still missing instructions on how to proceed in order to reunite the separated children with their parents. The deadline for reuniting children under five with their parents was July 10; for all others it was July 26. After the court order, the HHS manually reviewed all case files of the approximately 11,800 children in their custody to determine whether HHS missed any who had been separated from adults at the border. Matters were further complicated by the fact that parents may have been in different situations: released, still detained, or deported.
The usual procedure for the release of a child to a sponsor involves a background check. Sponsors must submit documentation proof that they are legitimate relatives and financially capable. They also have to pay for travel costs, in some cases thousands of US dollars for air fares. Since June 2018, the procedure also involves the fingerprinting of every adult in a potential sponsor's household. The procedure is said to be intended to avoid the risk of releasing children to unauthorized persons or child traffickers. Representatives of plaintiffs argue that the usual procedure is too slow for the release of a child to their parent.
CNN reported that DNA testing was performed to expedite parental verification and ensure reunification with verified parents, without details being reported as to whether consent has been asked. Human rights advocates have criticized that migrant children, some as young as two months old, cannot give their consent to DNA testing. Medical experts have recommended to use DNA testing only as a last resort. Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center, emphasizes the danger to social ties in the family given that "misattributed fatherhood, and even motherhood, is more common than most people realize".
Azar declared on July 5, 2018, that the government would meet the July 10 deadline for uniting children under five with their parents, and confirmed that DNA testing was being used to speed up matching parents and children. He also said the Department of Homeland Security was relocating parents of children under five to detention facilities close to their children. In advance of the deadline of July 26 that had been set for reunification of minors five or older, the administration stated on July 16 that it had completed reunifying "all eligible children under five", and that families with older children were being reunited on a rolling basis. On July 25, ACLU filed a submission setting out that some of the parents had been misled to relinquish their right to reunite with their children.
On July 26, 2018, the Trump administration said that 1,442 children had been reunited with their parents while 711 remained in government shelters because their cases are still under review, their parents have criminal records, or their parents are no longer in the United States. Officials stated that 431 parents of those children had already been deported without their children. Officials said they will work with the court to return the remaining children, including the children whose parents have been deported. As of August 20, 2018, 528 of the children—about a fifth—reportedly still had not been reunited with their parents.
In September 2018, the Department of Justice changed their handling of asylum claims of asylum seekers who had undergone family separation. The change, which was said to give about 1,000 persons a second chance to claim asylum, was the result of a negotiation covering three lawsuits that had been filed against the government over the family-separation policy.
On November 30, 2018, CNN reported that 140 children who had been separated from their parents still remained in custody. Of these, eight were in the pipeline for reunification in the US or abroad, whereas 132 would not be reunified with their parents, either because the parents had declined reunification or officials had deemed that no reunification could take place because the parents were unfit or posed a danger.
A followup government report released in January 2019, revealed that while HHS had previously said that the total number of children separated from their parents was 2,737, a new investigation suggested the true number of children to be thousands more, with the exact number unknown. In February, the Trump administration responded to requests made by the ACLU that the thousands of children that were revealed in the January report be reunited with their parents as well. HHS responded to the requests saying it would be extremely difficult to locate the children and even if it were possible they planned to continue to focus only on the children currently in custody, claiming that removing children from "sponsor" homes "would present grave child welfare concerns". The leading ACLU attorney responded saying "The Trump administration's response is a shocking concession that it can't easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents, and doesn't even think it's worth the time to locate each of them."
In October 2020, ACLU lawyers submitted a court filing with an update saying they had not yet been able to reach the parents of 545 separated children, with about two-thirds of the parents believed to be somewhere in Central America. The lawyers reported that it has been very difficult to locate the parents of about 1,500 children who had been taken from their parents in 2017, when zero-tolerance was being carried out during the secretive pilot program because many of those parents were deported without their children and records were not kept. The Trump administration has refused funding or assistance to help find the missing parents; NGOs and the ACLU have provided both volunteer workers and have covered all expenses related to the search. Speaking on PBS, ACLU head attorney Lee Gelernt said, "When there are families in the U.S. who have finally been reunited, and they have gone through this horrific situation, you would think the Trump administration would say, OK, we will let them stay. But, in fact, what most people don't know is, the Trump administration is trying to deport all of these previously separated families." The ACLU says that the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the difficulty of finding parents, but they are committed to reuniting all of the remaining children. After cases of COVID-19 among minors in ORR custody were confirmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, two federal courts issued rulings mandating oversight of the facilities' preparedness for the pandemic.
On February 2,2021, President Joe Biden signed executive orders which are planned to begin the dismantling of Trump's 'America First' immigration policies. The orders aim to review Trump's actions and reunite separated migrant families, however they say it could take months, if not years. Under the Trump administration thousands of migrants have been living in squalid conditions on the Mexico side of the border as they waited for legal entry. Biden officials said that the border cannot be suddenly opened because a crisis could quickly develop if a large influx of people would attempt to enter the U.S. before an asylum and refugee system has been put in place. As he signed the order Biden said, "We’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, the mothers and fathers at the border, and with no plan — none whatsoever — to reunify the children."