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A look at Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12 near McAllen, Texas. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal border crossings has resulted in recent weeks in the highly publicized separation of children from their parents as the families seek to enter the United States without proper documentation.

Images of children by the dozens sleeping in chain-link enclosures and a small girl crying in the night as her mother is searched have sparked not just outrage from Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocates but emotionally charged condemnation from Republicans and conservative religious leaders as well.

Trump and his top aides have not backed down.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp,” Trump said Monday, doubling down on his blame of Democrats as obstructionists who he said won’t come to the table to discuss immigration reform.

“We will not apologize for the job we do,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday.

“Having children does not give you immunity from arrest and prosecution,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last Thursday.

How did the practice of family separation begin under Trump?

Sessions on April 6 announced a new “zero-tolerance policy” along the Southwest border for violations of the law prohibiting entry or attempted entry by those without proper documentation. U.S. attorneys are directed to “prosecute all amenable adults who illegally enter the country, including those accompanied by their children,” according to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet. Adults are transferred to U.S. Marshals Service custody, but children cannot be kept with their parents in federal jail, so minors are taken to temporary shelters.

How many children have been separated from their parents or guardians?

DHS figures show that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults between April 19 and May 31 for reasons that included illegal entry, immigration violations and possible criminal conduct by the adult. The numbers cover those who sought to enter the United States between official border crossings.

What was the practice of past administrations?

Former President George W. Bush’s “Operation Streamline” also referred all immigrants entering illegally for criminal prosecution but allowed exceptions for adults traveling with children. Former President Barack Obama followed a similar protocol on prosecution but kept families together in detention in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Nielsen said families were separated under past administrations, but acknowledged it was done at a lower rate than now.

What happens to children separated from their parents?

DHS says it may separate a child from his or her parent or legal guardian if the adult is referred for criminal prosecution on a charge of illegal entry. Children are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the DHS. The HHS ORR provides medical care, mental health care and educational services to the children and works to find a sponsor (a parent, guardian, other adult relative or foster care provider), according to the DHS.

Can the children be reunited with their parents?

The DHS said it works to keep adults and minors in HHS custody in contact via telephone and video conference and said parents trying to locate their children can get information via a hotline that is accessible from ICE detention facilities. There is no clear reunification procedure beyond the hotline. Immigrant advocacy groups such as the Tahirih Justice Center report instances in which parents have not been able to contact their children and in which parents have been deported without their children.

What about asylum seekers?

Nielsen and the DHS have said families who present themselves for asylum at official U.S. ports of entry would not be separated, but a letter from Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona to DHS and HHS cited news media reporting of instances in which parents and children are still separated at ports of entry. Additionally, the asylum backlog likely means adults will be detained for longer than the government is permitted to hold children, which is 20 days.

What are critics saying about family separation?

Aside from the chorus of Democratic lawmakers and immigrants’ advocates who have called Trump’s approach cruel and inhumane, first lady Melania Trump, former first lady Laura Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), evangelical leader Franklin Graham and Cardinal Timothy Dolan have spoken against the practice. “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call,” Lindsey Graham told CNN. “I’ll go tell him: ‘If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS, Stop doing it.’”

What is the policy exactly?

Nielsen said family separation is not DHS policy. The agency said in a fact sheet that while it does not have a blanket policy of separating parents and children, it does have a “responsibility to protect all minors in our custody.” The DHS said it will separate parents and children under circumstances that include when the adult is referred for criminal prosecution. Even if family separation isn’t DHS’ broader aim, however, the nearly 2,000 children that the agency has acknowledged were separated from adults recently is an effect of the “zero-tolerance policy.” Additionally, former DHS Secretary and current White House chief of staff John Kelly said in March 2017 that he was considering separation as a means of deterring illegal border crossings.

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