In an internal watchdog report obtained by BuzzFeed News, the Department of Homeland Security found that its agents separated 40 children from their families despite them not fitting the criteria outlined by the agency itself for separation. For a period of time between May and June 2018, agents separated children from their parents on the grounds of previous attempts to enter the United States or another act that the government considers to be an immigration violation.
Department agents and Office of Field Operations Staff separated these families during the period of time when the Trump administration was pushing an anti-immigrant "zero tolerance" policy at the border. The policy, which was originally announced in April 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, applied harsher criminal penalties to people immigrating without proper documentation. This policy resulted in a sharp uptick in criminal prosecutions of those immigrating, but had no impact on crime inside the country's borders. And because adults were taken into custody for prosecution immediately, under the policy many parents were separated from their children, as the law prohibits children from being detained indefinitely. After protests and pressure from elected officials, Trump eventually ended the policy in June 2018 via executive order.
But a review from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general found, per BuzzFeed News, that “between May and June 2018, Office of Field Operations staff, operating without clear guidance, separated at least 35 asylum-seeking families at ports of entry for reasons other than the children’s welfare or a ‘legal requirement,’ such as criminal warrants." Those reasons were supposed to be the only reason for separating a child from their parent or guardian.
Instead, the report states, officials "separated these families based on the parents’ prior immigration violations, such as previously entering the United States without a visa." This report aligns with what other research from the same period of time showed, which is that the U.S. government intentionally chose to bring charges against families, rather than single individuals.
Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the homeland security secretary at the time of the separation policy, said that detaining parents without papers was a policy instituted to protect children. But ample evidence exists showing that separating children from their parents for any length of time is trauma-inducing. The Department of Homeland Security additionally claimed to be addressing "loopholes" in the immigration system.
Just two days before Trump signed the executive order, Nielsen claimed at a White House press conference that "this administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border." But Nielsen's statement contradicted widespread reporting at the time, not to mention the new information obtained by BuzzFeed News of the 40 children separated from their parents. The internal memo expands on Nielsen's public misinformation: "The separations appeared to be inconsistent with CBP policy and DHS public messages regarding family separations at that time.”
DHS did not track all migrant families trying to immigrate, so there's still little concrete evidence as to how many total families were separated from one another. DHS also did not track if or when families were reunited, so it's entirely possible some parents and children are still separated.
The Trump administration has long perpetuated the idea that the U.S. immigration system is in need of a hard-line solution. During the coronavirus pandemic, the administration has threatened to close the border to all immigration, even those fleeing violence in their home county and claiming asylum, which is illegal under international human rights law.