U.S. Continues to Separate Migrant Families Despite Rollback of Policy

OAKLAND, Calif. — Nearly nine months after the Trump administration officially rescinded its policy of separating migrant families who have illegally crossed the border, more than 200 migrant children have been taken from parents and other relatives and placed in institutional care, with some spending months in shelters and foster homes thousands of miles away from their parents.

The latest data reported to the federal judge monitoring one of the most controversial of President Trump’s immigration policies shows that 245 children have been removed from their families since the court ordered the government to halt routine separations under last spring’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy. Some of the new separations are being undertaken with no clear documentation to help track the children’s whereabouts.

Images of crying mothers and children at the border last year prompted an intense backlash across party lines, with all four living former first ladies and Melania Trump expressing horror at the policy. But despite President Trump’s June 20 executive order rescinding it, the practice was never completely suspended.

Under the original policy, most children were removed because parents who illegally crossed the border were subject to criminal prosecution. The recent separations have occurred largely because parents have been flagged for fraud, a communicable disease or past criminal history — in some cases relatively minor violations, years in the past, that ordinarily would not lead to the loss of parental custody.

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The new separations are taking place amid an unprecedented influx of migrant families from across the southern border that has highlighted the failure of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies to deter them. The Border Patrol detained 76,103 migrants in February, an 11-year high for that month. Among those intercepted were about 40,000 members of families, two-thirds more than in January.

In Congress last week, Democrats grilled Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, over the separation policy, citing research that has found that separations from parents can inflict long-term psychological harm on children.

Family separations also sometimes occurred under the Obama administration, but only rarely and in extreme cases in which a child’s safety appeared to be at risk.

Customs and Border Protection officials say the separations are legal under the parameters set by the court and are intended to protect children, who they say may be threatened by human trafficking or by adults pretending to be a parent to capitalize on the advantage that gives them under American immigration laws.

“C.B.P. does not declare that a parent poses danger to a child arbitrarily or without merit,” the agency said in a statement. It said agents “will maintain family unity to the greatest extent operationally feasible,” separating children only in the presence of “a legal requirement” set out in written policy or “an articulable safety or security concern that requires separation.”

But opposition to the new separations has been growing from both outside and inside the federal government. At the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care of separated children until they can be reunited with their families, some officials have tried to resist receiving children referred to the agency by the Border Patrol.

According to an official who was not authorized to discuss government business and spoke on the condition of anonymity, staff members have in some cases raised questions with Border Patrol agents about separations with what appear to be little or no justification. In some of those cases, border agents have refused to provide additional information, the official said, or if additional documents were provided, they were sometimes redacted to the point of illegibility.

The official, along with another staff member at the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said that some separations were occurring with no formal notification to the refugee resettlement office. Both officials said they had been made aware of concerns about an apparent inconsistency in standards applied by border agents when determining whether a family should be separated.

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Miriam Jordan and Caitlin Dickerson