The Slatest

Report: 81 Migrant Children Separated From Adults at Border Since End of Zero-Tolerance Policy

A girl cries and holds onto the backback of a smaller boy in front of her. Two women with them carry bags and look calm.
A group of Central American migrants surrender to US Border Patrol agents after jumping over the metal barrier separating Mexico from the United States, on December 2, 2018.
Guillermo Arias/Getty Images

The Trump administration has separated 81 children from their families since the end of the “zero-tolerance” policy this summer, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security.

These separations have fallen under the caveats left in place by a federal judge who ruled against the zero-tolerance policy’s legality but allowed the administration to intervene in times when the child is in danger or when the parent is accused of serious crimes.

According to the Associated Press, the majority of the 76 adults separated from the children were criminally prosecuted. Fifty-one of them have been charged with a crime, while 10 others were detained because of alleged gang affiliation. Nine were hospitalized, four extradited on warrants, and two arrested for earlier immigration violations or orders of removal. Immigrants’ rights groups have expressed concern that the administration could justify the separations and proceed with detaining and prosecuting those accompanying minors by falsely labeling parents as criminals.

It’s hard to compare the numbers to those of previous administrations, as the DHS did not track family separations before 2017. During the fiscal year of 2017, which began under the Obama administration but was mostly under the Trump administration, Border Patrol separated 1,065 family members out of 75,622 family apprehensions, according to the AP. Forty-six of those separations were due to suspected fraud and 1,019 for medical and security concerns, but there is not more detailed information. The data do not indicate how many of the people separated were children or adults.

Comparing the numbers to the zero tolerance period, though, shows a marked difference. From April through May, more than 2,400 children were separated from their families.

In June, Trump signed an executive order ending the family separations. He continued to be criticized because his order allowed migrant families to be detained together for lengthy periods of time and because his administration struggled to track down and reunite the families. After the ruling, a federal judge barred further family separations and ordered the government to reunite the families.

“As we have already said—and the numbers show: Separations are rare,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a statement. “While there was a brief increase during zero tolerance as more adults were prosecuted, the numbers have returned to their prior levels. However, the numbers we have recently compiled show unequivocally that smugglers, human traffickers, and nefarious actors are attempting to use hundreds of children to exploit our immigration laws in hopes of gaining entry to the United States.” She did not provide any evidence to support the claim that “nefarious actors” were using children to gain entry to the U.S.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that his family separation policy was no different than that of Obama’s border enforcement and that he had been unfairly attacked. This assertion is false, as the Washington Post fact checkers noted, and the Obama- and Bush-era policy of separating children from adults at the border only applied to limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or other risk to the child. It’s not yet clear how the administration’s current standards and practices for separating families would compare to that of the previous administrations.

Thousands of migrants in caravans have traveled from Central America in recent weeks. Trump, who has stoked public fears of the migrants and made his hard-line immigration approach a central message of his campaign, has emphasized what he believes to be the criminal nature of the migrants and attempted to deny their ability to ask for asylum outside designated ports of entry. In November, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the asylum ban and issued a temporary nationwide restraining order until Dec. 19, as a lawsuit works its way through the courts.