What’s happening at the border? Here’s what we know about immigrant children being separated from their families

The attention of the nation has turned to Texas and its border with Mexico as the Trump administration has enacted a policy that has resulted in undocumented children being separated from their parents. Here’s what we know:

What’s happening at the border?

The federal government announced an immigration policy of “zero tolerance,” which means all adults who cross the border illegally between official ports of entry will be criminally prosecuted. Since children can’t be sent to federal jail, kids who are detained with their parents are being separated from them. While their parents go through the legal system, children are handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

A temporary facility, which critics call a “tent city,” opened Friday at the port of entry at Tornillo. The facility will hold 360 minors and could expand, The Texas Tribune has reported.

Why is the Trump administration doing this?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in April.

“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” he said the following month. “It’s that simple. … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

The policy is meant to deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border illegally. Sessions said President Donald Trump won the 2016 election in part thanks to his tough stance on immigration.

“If you want to change our laws, then pass a bill in Congress,” he said. “Persuade your fellow citizens to your point of view.”

Trump, meanwhile, is blaming Democrats.

In a tweet Monday morning, he said, “Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country. Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”

How many children have been separated from their parents?

Official numbers say about 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border, but the actual number is likely higher.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults between April 19 and May 31. Those numbers don’t include separations from June or any separations that occurred before April 19. 

The Trump administration tested the “zero tolerance” policy starting in October. The New York Times reported that between October and April, more than 700 children were separated from adults claiming to be their parents. The reporting was based on data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

What happens to the children once they’re separated?

Unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some parents have told an assistant federal public defender that their children were taken immediately at the border, and others said they were separated at processing facilities.

The majority of unaccompanied, undocumented children are taken to detention centers, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The office tries to place children in foster homes or with relatives already living in the United States.

Reporters were allowed to tour a children’s facility in Brownsville where over 1,400 boys are being housed. CNN reported the boys attend school in six-hour shifts and have two hours of outdoor time a day.

Caseworkers, judges and Border Patrol officers don’t know when families will be reunited, according to the Boston Globe. Some families report being separated for over six months. The Houston Chronicle reported that the government mistakenly gave parents trying to find their children an ICE tip line phone number instead of a Department of Homeland Security phone number.

How did the Obama administration handle similar cases?

The Obama administration drew criticism from immigration advocates for its 2015 policy of detaining mothers and children, but it released families from detention together.

During a surge of undocumented immigration from Central America in 2014, a federal judge ruled that families were being held in “deplorable” conditions in Texas detention centers after crossing the border, according to previous Texas Tribune reporting. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gave the Obama administration about two months to release women and children in centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.

Homeland Security officials initially said they were detaining families to deter immigrants from illegally crossing the border, according to the New York Times. In February 2015, a federal court ruled that the children had to be released. In 2016, a judge ruled that a 20-day detention limit for children applied to families, too. Federal authorities then released many of those families and told them to return for their court dates.

How are Texas lawmakers reacting?

Many Democrats are outraged. On Father’s Day, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso who is running for U.S. Senate, and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, who is running for Congress, led a protest at the Tornillo tent city. Six Democratic members of the Texas Legislature sent a letter to two federal agencies calling the tent cities “abhorrent and possibly illegal.”

Most Texas Republicans have remained quiet. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, has been the exception. Hurd, who represents a district along the border, blamed the Trump administration — not the legislature — for the policy.

“This is clearly something that the administration could change,” Hurd told CNN. “They don’t need legislation to change it. They don’t need Democrats in order to change it. This is a Department of Justice policy, and this is something that’s being enacted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, both Republicans, echoed President Trump and blamed Democrats in Congress for the policy.

Laura Bush, the former first lady of the U.S. and of Texas, called the zero tolerance policy “cruel” in an op-ed published in the Washington Post.

As this story develops and we have more information, we’ll continue to answer your questions. To submit questions about what’s happening at the border, email texplainer@texastribune.org. Follow The Texas Tribune on Twitter  or our list of journalists covering the policy for updates.



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