U.S. planned to separate 26,000 migrant families before outcry over “zero tolerance” policy

(Nov. 27, 2019) The Trump administration planned to separate tens of thousands of migrant children from their parents in the span of five months before it was forced to end its “zero tolerance” crackdown along the southern border due to public outcry and a court ruling. 

In early May of 2018, the month when the administration began implementing the “zero tolerance” policy across the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told the White House budget office that it expected its officers to separate more than 26,000 families by September of that year, according to a report released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General on Wednesday.

The revelation represents the first official estimate of the number of families the administration was prepared and willing to separate as part of the controversial policy designed to deter U.S.-bound migrants. It also suggests that U.S. officials were committed to the large-scale implementation of the practice before President Trump signed an executive order halting it and a federal judge ordered the administration to discontinue the policy and reunify most separated families.

“This report pulls back the curtain on the Administration’s cruelty, incompetence, and indifference to the suffering of children who were taken from their parents under President Trump’s child separation policy,” New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. 

Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the ongoing legal challenge the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has mounted against separations of migrants families, denounced the “shocking” details of the watchdog report. “The administration was planning on separating up to 26,000 families,” Gelernt said. “Had it not been for the legal challenge and public outcry, the administration may very well have succeeded.”  

Although some detained migrant families were separated under previous administrations — mostly when officials determined the parents posed a danger to their children — the Trump administration policy involved the prosecution of all border-crossing parents for illegal entry, to systematically separate thousands of families.

After implementing a pilot program in El Paso in late 2017, officials began enforcing the policy along the entire border in May 2018. 

After a massive public uproar, however, the president signed an order in June to stop the practice. Days later, Judge Dana Sabraw U.S. District of Southern California ordered the administration in June 2018 to halt policy and to reunify separated families, decreeing that families should not be separated “absent a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”

According to figures disclosed through litigation, more than 2,800 children were separated from their parents under “zero tolerance” as of late 2018. Last month, the government told a federal court that an additional 1,500 migrant children were separated from their parents before “zero tolerance” was fully implemented, meaning at least 4,300 families were separated by the Trump administration prior to Sabraw’s ruling.

In addition to those separations, approximately 1,000 migrant minors have been separated from their parents after Sabraw’s ruling under contested circumstances. 

In the report released on Wednesday, however, the DHS inspector general said the department can’t calculate an accurate total number of migrant families it separated during its “zero tolerance” border crackdown — or how many it subsequently reunified — because of the unreliable tracking systems it used.

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