Separation of Families at the Border

While the official practice of separating children at the border has come to an end, there are still circumstances, due to continued US border Policies, that lead a child to be separated from their parents. We are advocating for an immediate end to Title 42, the CDC order that closed the border —an order issued under Trump that remains currently in place under Biden, despite this administration’s commitments to bring immediate relief to immigrant communities.

As of April, 2021 close to 500 children remained separated from their families.

We also want to emphasize that family separation also results on a daily basis when parents living in the U.S. are detained and/or deported, leaving behind their families who devastated by the disappearance of their loved one and the hardships this loss causes on their daily lives and ability to make ends meet. Advocates are working tirelessly to end the deportations and detentions, and reunite all families.

An April 7, 2021 NYT Article A court filing says parents of 445 separated migrant children still have not been found an excerpt from the article:

Advocates for families separated at the border during the Trump administration continue to pressure the president to move faster to reunite them. Lee Gelernt, an A.C.L.U. lawyer who has waged a lengthy legal battle against Mr. Trump’s separation policy, said some progress had been made but much more needed to be done. “We and the Biden administration have enormous work yet to do if we are going to fix the terrible abuses of the Trump administration’s family separation practice,” he said.

From the Guardian: Parents of 112 children separated at US-Mexico border contacted, court hears

Government agencies did not have systems to track or reunite separated families when they were taking children from their parents at the border and reunification efforts have depended on information that can be outdated or incomplete.

Advocates have traveled to remote parts of Central America to find parents, sometimes with only the name of one parent and the remote municipality they are from to guide the search. Some of these parents are especially difficult to find because they are hiding from the criminal gangs that drove them to flee to the US. If contact with parents is established, it can be difficult to convince them the advocates are there to help.

And from Politico March 20, 2021: Biden Brings Back Family Separation—This Time in Mexico

U.S. agents no longer tear apart parents and children, but families are having to make painful decisions—just on the other side of the border.

The door to the U.S. has been shut tight to asylum seekers since last March, about the time when Janiana first arrived in Tijuana, when the Trump administration issued an order at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic that every migrant — child or adult — would be immediately “expelled” back to Mexico or their home country if they attempted to cross the border, without even a chance to make a case that the persecution they face qualifies them to stay. After he took office this year, Joe Biden kept the policy largely in place, but began to admit unaccompanied minors even while continuing to expel both adults and children who enter with families. Since the shift in policy, some parents and guardians have made the devastating decision, calculated only out of desperation, to send their children off ahead of them, alone, to cross the border.


April 2017 The Trump Administration began separating children, including babies, from their families at the US-Mexico border.

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.

July 18, 2018: The court has further ordered that reunited 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 considered all other children — over 2,500 — who were supposed to be reunited with parents by July 26. The plan outlined 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 was concerned the plan was just one more delay tactic by the government.

On Jan. 17, 2019, The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) 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 their whereabouts.

In Jan. 2021, The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued another report about the Zero Tolerance Policy under the Trump Administration, stating:

We concluded that the Department’s single-minded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations.

A more thorough timeline can be found here from the Southern Poverty Law Center.


In 2017 when Trump took office, Administration officials 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 applied 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, 2017 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 did not know where their children were located; some parents were shipped to detention facilities in other states and some were deported from the United States while their children remained in custody.

The separated children, who widely range in age, were therefore considered “unaccompanied minors” and joined 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) seemed to be for deterrence purposes–to keep undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers–out of the country. As Donald Trump had said, the U.S. will not have “migrant camps”. On June 25, 2017 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 was 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”, where he held 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 did 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 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the policy of family separation 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.”

While under Biden there are promises that this practice will come to an end, there are still cases where children are being separated, though far less than before. Currently almost 500 children remain separated from their families. There are thousands who are now reunited but who have been deeply impacted by the trauma of this experience.

There is a need for continued advocacy and vigilance and policies to ensure that this never happens again and to seek redress for the harms done to the children and their families.

What You Can Do

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.


  • 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 upcoming appropriations bill. Link to the #DefundHate initiative hosted by the Detention Watch Network.
  • 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!
Links to Policy Statements on Family Separation

Families Belong Together: Families Belong Together works to permanently end family separation and detention, seek accountability for the harm that’s been done, and immediately reunite all families who remain torn apart.

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 Practitioners