On 29 May 2018 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a significant increase in the number of unaccompanied children held in U.S. government detention centers compared to the prior month, as reported by the Washington Post:
The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.
Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.
This increase in detentions follows a 6 April 2018 Department of Justice announcement that the Trump administration would be taking a new “zero tolerance policy” regarding border crossings that explicitly include child separation. This policy has been controversial both for the child separation issue as well as its assertion that it requires the Department of Justice to prosecute “100 percent” of border crossing cases, which would deny a person’s right to request asylum. Standing next to a segment the border called Friendship Park on 8 May 2018, Sessions said:
People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. That’s why the Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases.
I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.
While the data reported by HHS in late May do not tell us what percentage of currently detained children arrived with parents from whom they were subsequently separated, we do know that child separation at the southern border has been increasing under the Trump administration as part of an overarching stance on immigration in general.
Even prior to the “zero tolerance policy”, the Trump administration — which has floated the use of child separation as a deterrent to border crossings since at least March 2017 — has been separating children caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from their parents in higher number than had been disclosed, as reported by the New York Times in April 2018:
New data reviewed by The New York Times shows that more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, including more than 100 children under the age of 4. The data was prepared by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents.
Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which processes migrants at the border, initially denied that the numbers were so high. But after they were confirmed to The Times by three federal officials who work closely with these cases, a spokesman for the health and human services department on Friday acknowledged in a statement that there were “approximately 700.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), run by HHS, aims to place children detained into foster homes — those of family members residing in the United States or in homes located by or run by non-governmental agencies. This serves, ideally, to reduce the numbers of children in immigration detention facilities.
But, in addition to the increased the number of unaccompanied children in need of settlement resulting from the Trump’s administration “zero tolerance policy”, some have argued that the administration has also reduced the ability for the government to find places to settle these children at all thanks to an recent ORR program known as the “Community Safety Initiative.”
The program, which is intended to “equip [unaccompanied alien children] with the tools they need to stay safe from gangs like MS-13” and “to ensure that the [unaccompanied alien children] we release from our care do not pose a danger to our communities,” includes a controversial Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, signed in April 2018, allowing for enhanced information sharing between two organizations. Advocates say this could be having a chilling effect on the resettlement program, as reported by the Washington Post:
The agreement signed last month gives Homeland Security access to more information about potential sponsors and children’s relatives — including their immigration status. That change will keep more kids in federal custody, immigrant advocates say, if their relatives are too scared to step forward or view a sponsorship decision as a choice between retrieving a child and risking their own deportation. In many cases, sponsors are aunts and uncles who may not have a close relationship to a child in custody and may be hesitant to jeopardize the immigration status of their own families, attorneys and advocates say.
“It will also have a chilling effect on children’s willingness to talk about who they know and who their relatives are because they won’t want to get their families in trouble,” said Michelle Brane of the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission.
The Trump administration has used the capabilities of the Office of Refugee Resettlement as a way to justify their controversial policy of separating children from their families. In an interview with NPR, President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly argued that separating children from parents wasn’t “cruel and heartless” because “the children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
With over 10,000 children crowded into detention centers, including a temporary facility on loan from the Department of Labor set up to handle this most recent surge, it is unclear if Kelly’s assertion is actually representative of the reality on the ground.