What is the Policy on Separating Children from Families at the Border?

By M. Russo — Published June 19, 2018

What is the Policy on Separating Children from Families at the Border?

While two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the practice of separating undocumented children from their families and putting them detention centers, many are confused about where this policy actually stems from. It's not hard to see how that confusion arises. Trump continues to place blame on Democrats for creating this law and reports that Democrats are "obstructing" changing the policy. "I say it's – very strongly – the Democrats' fault. The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won't be."

Meanwhile, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen denies the family separation policy even exists: "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period." Later, at a White House briefing, she defended the family separation policy, after having denied its existence. She argued that Trump was continuing a policy from "previous administrations" and that Congress needed to be the ones to change the policy.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders have both admitted the policy exists, and insist that it is justified by the Bible, despite religious authorities saying otherwise. Meanwhile, Democrats are calling on Trump to put an end to the policy that he blames on the Democrats. So, what is the truth of the matter?

The policy that Trump and other members of his administration are referring to when they blame Democrats is actually a 1997 legal agreement called the Flores settlement. This was a legal agreement struck by the Clinton administration regarding the treatment of children who are detained by immigration authorities. Under it, the government is required to release immigrant children within 20 days to parents, relatives, or licensed programs. If these options aren't available, the children need to be pleased in the "least restrictive" setting that is suitable for their ages.

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 In 2005, George W. Bush launched Operation Streamline, where immigrants who entered the country illegally where quickly prosecuted criminally and deported. At that time, however, exceptions were typically made for adults who were traveling with children.

In 2014, facing people who were crossing the border illegally with children under the belief they would receive better treatment than coming as single adults, Barack Obama's administration decided to expand detention of immigrant families. Images of children being held with their families led to denouncement by immigrant advocacy groups. In 2015, a federal judge ordered the administration to stop detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children just to deter others from attempting to cross the border.

Documents have revealed that almost as soon as President Trump was inaugurated, his administration began focusing on discouraging immigrants from illegally entering the United States. Trump advisor Stephen Miller argued that the Zero Tolerance policy would be a strong deterrent for anyone considering illegally crossing the border. In March 2017, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly also said that the administration was considering separating children from parents "in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network."

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administrations "zero tolerance" policy for those who cross the border illegally, including asylum seekers, in May. This means that everyone who crosses the border illegally will be prosecuted. Once the undocumented immigrants are taken into federal criminal custody, their children are considered unaccompanied alien minors and thus separated. Technically, there is no official Trump policy to separate children from their parents, but it is the result of his administration's zero tolerance policy. Children cannot be held in adult federal facility with parents who are facing criminal prosecution. In six weeks, 2,000 children were separated from their families and being held in facilities such as warehouses and former big box stores with chain link cages inside. Because of these detention centers being at capacity, tent cities are being built in the Texas desert to hold more children.

source: gettyimages

Across party lines, both Democrats and Republicans have called on Trump to end the practice of separating children from their parents. While the Trump administration continues to maintain that only Congress can reverse the policy, many lawmakers, including Republicans, are requesting President Trump to reverse the policy himself since it is in his power to do so. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) both said that Trump could resolve this on his own with a simple phone call. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also said, "The White House can fix it if they want to."

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Keep Families Together Act this month. Every Senate Democrat has now co-sponsored the legislation, though no Republican Senators have yet signed on. The policy would apply to families within 100 miles of the US border, except in cases of abuse and neglect. Even if legislation were to pass in Congress, however, it would likely take weeks before it would be enacted.

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