Hundreds of Children Taken Under ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy Await Reunification

The judge overseeing the case has expressed optimism on the ongoing reunification process.

  • Published 27 August 2018
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Hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have yet to be reunited with their parents, according to attorneys representing the families.

Overall, a total of 2,654 children were taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under the policy that began in April 2018 and was effectively ended in June 2018, when a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) in a class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the policy be discontinued and families reunified.

As of a 24 August 2018 status conference in that case, 528 children remained in the care of the federal government and had not been reunified with their separated parents. Of those children, 343 were separated from a parent who has since been deported and is no longer in the U.S. Another 203 have been released from government custody to a U.S. sponsor (typically a family member, such as an aunt, grandparent, or the other parent). Those children have yet to be reunified with the parents from whom they were separated at the border, according to the ACLU.

In issuing the 26 June 2018 TRO, Judge Sabraw gave the federal government until 26 July 2018 to reunite all separated families. Despite the slow progress, he said during the 24 August status conference that it “seems we are on a very good trajectory here.”

As the “zero tolerance’ policy was implemented, the Trump administration drew considerable backlash when images and recordings of caged and weeping children who had been taken from their parents at the border emerged in the news media. The issue prompted nationwide protests and drew criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

When the policy was rolled out, the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees immigration enforcement agencies) insisted that no policy to separate families was in place, and that all immigrants who were apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry would be charged with crimes. An August 2018 analysis by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC) indicated that was not the case, however. Immigrants crossing with children were disproportionately targeted for prosecution, and only 32 percent of adults apprehended by Border Patrol were charged in May 2018, according to TRAC:

Family separations, the Administration stated, was the inevitable consequence of prosecuting everyone caught illegally entering this country. As the press widely reported, “[t]he Justice Department can’t prosecute children along with their parents, so the natural result of the zero-tolerance policy has been a sharp rise in family separations. Nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from parents during six weeks in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security.”

However, since less than a third of adults apprehended illegally crossing the border were actually referred for prosecution, the stated justification does not explain why this Administration chose to prosecute parents with children over prosecuting adults without children who were also apprehended in even larger numbers.

Judge Sabraw asked all parties in the case to provide bi-weekly updates on the reunification process.