Separation of families at the border - Overview and Update


NEWS UPDATE: (Jan. 17, 2019) The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has just issued a report revealing that there were many more children separated from their families than had been previously acknowledged by the Administration -- likely significantly more. And there are still missing records about them or there whereabouts. Read the report here.

On June 20, 2018, Donald Trump signed the Executive Order, "Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation". The Executive Order came on the heels of a massive public cry of outrage over the Administration's decision to separate immigrant children from their parents at the border. This was followed by a court ruling to halt separations and ordering the reunification of families. 

The Executive Order did not include a plan to reunite over 2,300 separated children with their parents but described how children would remain with their parents in detention, likely over a prolonged period, while criminal or immigration proceedings against them went forward. The order sought to modify the Flores settlement, which had limited the length of time and conditions of child detention, and also called for an expansion of family detention facilities.

On June 26, 2018, California Judge Dana Sabraw issued a nationwide injunction to halt the separation of children from their parents at the border and also ordered that all the separated families had to be reunited within 30 days. Specifically, the Judge Sabraw ordered that children under 5 years of age had to be reunited with parents within 14 days. While some children had been reunited, the Administration has continued to emphasize that children would not be reunited with their parents until the parents' cases were resolved or the parents withdrew their claims for asylum, or agreed to "voluntary" departure.

The court order responded to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which acted on behalf of two women whose children were taken from them; ACLU had also asked the courts to consider a suit on behalf of the entire class of parents whose children were taken from them.

UPDATE, JULY 18, 2018: The court has further ordered that reuited families not be deported for at least a week, so that families may decide on the fate of their children, whose cases are considerate separately from the parents.

The Depts. of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and the Justice issued "The Tri-Department Plan for Stage II of Family Reunification" following their failure to fully meet the first deadline for reunification of children under five years of age with their parents. This plan considers all other children -- over 2,500 -- who are supposed to be reunited with parents by July 26. The plan outlines steps to be taken to verify identity and safe circumstances for reunification -- skipping the time-consuming and contested DNA testing. The judge who ordered the reunification is concerned this plan is just one more delay tactic by the government.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Central American asylum seekers--parents whose children were taken from them.

Attorneys General from 17 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit (June 26) against the Trump Administration to force the reunification of separated families.


For over a year, Trump Administration officials have floated the notion of separating children from parents in detention at the border, only to meet public backlash. The idea certainly was not new -- the separation of children from parents has happened in the past, for example, during slavery, and by official government policy against Native American populations. And family separations have been taking place at the border and in the interior.

But during the usual springtime uptick of migrants and refugees approaching the U.S.-Mexico border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on May 7 a "new" policy of “zero-tolerance” towards undocumented immigrants and said that as a consequence of prosecuting every border crosser, children would now be separated from border-crossing parents; he specifically noted that this policy would also apply to asylum seekers.

There is no law specifying that children should be separated from their families. This was a discretionary decision made by the Trump Administration. And placing children is hardly new. Read "How We Got Here: The Disturbing Path That Leads to Child Prison Camps".

"Zero tolerance" has actually been the official immigration control policy for many years; it was behind the creation of "Operation Streamline", which criminalized border crossing without immigration documents. Under Operation Streamline, undocumented  border crossers have been subject to "expedited removal", rapidly processed in large groups with little or no access to due process. "Illegal entry and re-entry" became prosecutable in criminal courts, rather than in immigration courts,  with a re-entry violation categorized as a felony, resulting in imprisonment.

The Sessions' decision applies to the prosecution of all border crossers--including asylum seekers. The Administration falsely cited a ruling in what is known as the Flores case--which was to prevent prolonged (more than 20 days) separation of children from their detained parents--to say that children must be separated from their parents and placed in a separate facility.

The separation of children was also being applied to asylum seekers who present themselves at a port of entry to make an asylum claim--which is what they are supposed to do.


Beginning April 19, more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents  by the U.S. Border Patrol, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The children were turned over to Health and Human Services (HHS), which placed them in shelters. HHS says it relies on “an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states.” Parents do not know where there children are located; some parents have been shipped to detention facilities in other states and some are being deported from the United States while their children remain in custody. 

The separated children, who widely range in age, are now considered "unaccompanied minors" and join others who entered without their parents--together some 10,000 children seeking safety and protection. Child welfare, juvenile justice and child development experts have asserted that this policy and practice is abusive and may produce long term effects on the health and development of the child. Some children have themselves been shipped to other cities, including as far away as New York.


While the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had sent mixed messages about why the decision was made to separate children, the most apparent reason (also cited by Administration officials) seems to be for deterrence purposes--to keep undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers--out of the country. As Donald Trump has said, the U.S. will not have "migrant camps". On June 25, Trump tweeted that any undocumented person approaching or crossing the border should be immediately blocked or deported without due process, access to a court hearing.

The Administration has been bent on pursuing family separation as a bargaining chip to win congressional support for Trump's broad anti-immigrant agenda and inflated enforcement budget, which includes the costly "wall". Similar to Trump's proposal for a DACA "solution", he has been holding young immigrants hostage to his drive for an "immigration win" as he had promised during his presidential campaign. Trump had said he would not sign any legislation that does not contain his "four pillars": 1) a DACA solution; 2) border security (including his huge ask for enforcement funding); 3) an end to the Diversity Visa program; and 4) a fundamental change to merit-based immigration, as opposed to family-based, a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy.

The House of Representatives just voted down two immigration bills proposed by Republican legislators, largely to as a show that they were "doing something" about immigration. The  Goodlatte bill was defeated on June 22 and a vote on a "compromise bill" (between hard-line and moderate Republicans) was delayed for apparent lack of support and was soundly defeated in a June 27 vote. Neither bill contained true proposals to end family separation or to provide for lasting status for DACA recipients. In addition to significant increases in immigration enforcement funding, the Republican immigration bills included other Trump agenda items--an end to the Diversity Visa program and a slashing of family-based legal immigration immigration visas. However, following the Administration's concession with his Executive Order, Trump has urged Republican legislators not to take up immigration legislation until after the November mid-terms. 

Read NNIRR's fact sheet on the Republican immigration bills.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also condemned the policy and urged the United States to end it. "The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable."


This is an issue that has affected the hearts and minds of people around the country, moving many to want to take personal action to help the children. But this is also a critical political issue--and keeping it front and center is important to rally support and build political pressure on Congress and the White House.


The separation of families raises many problems concerning U.S. immigration and refugee policies and enforcement which need to be addressed. We offer here just a few immediate policy/message recommendations:

  • Separated children must be immediately reunited with their parents.
  • Families should be released from detention pending resolution of their cases. 
  • The right to claim asylum must be respected and upheld; all applications should be considered on an individual basis.
  • Asylum seekers (adults and children) should not be subjected to detention.


  • Participate in local and nationally-organized protests. Local communities are organizing protests at detention sites (including those for children), proposed detention sites, federal buildings and other.
  • Rally political support against detention facilities in local communities - engage local elected officials to oppose any complicit relations in detaining children, their parents and other immigrants and asylum seekers. Seek and share resolutions and statements from institutions and sectors that show solidarity and support for immigrant families.
  • Advocate and organize against immigration enforcement funding, particularly in the 2019 appropriations bill. Link to the #DefundHate initiative hosted by the Detention Watch Network.
  • Support Keep Families Together legislation in the House (HR 6135) and in the Senate (S. 3036), to ensure that families are no longer separated and that the best interests of children are upheld.
  • Oppose immigration raids, which have been on the increase. Among the devastating impact of raids, resulting in the detention and deportation of immigrant workers and community members, is the separation of families. Family members, including children, are often left behind. Children may be left alone if both parents are deported.
  • Provide financial support to organizations that are advocating for immigrant rights, doing public education, providing direct legal representation for immigrants in detention, pressing for legislation action, doing litigation in the courts. Donate to NNIRR!



Over 90 organizations sign a letter asking that Congress abolish and defund ICE!

Interfaith Immigration Coalition

American Psychological Association

American Academy of Pediatrics

American Public Health Association

United Nations 

Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network

National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practicioners



Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

Fred Upton (R-MI)

Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM)

Debbie Dingell (D-MI)

Peter Roskam (R-IL) 

Don Bacon (R-NE)

Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX)