Why were children separated from their parents at US-Mexico border?

US government says volunteers rather than state officials should lead efforts to reunite families

migrant child US border
(Image credit: HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The US government has insisted that volunteers and non-profit groups should “take the lead” in locating hundreds of immigrants who remain separated from their children after being split at the US-Mexico border.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice made the proposal in response to a lawsuit “challenging some 2,500 family separations initiated by the Trump administration as part of its ‘zero tolerance’ policy to curb illegal immigration”, reports Reuters.

Although 1,900 children have been sent back to their families, as many as 400 deported parents have yet to be reunited with their children, according to government statistics.

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The lawyers told San Diego Federal Court on Thursday that the government “would supply what information it had about the deported parents to the plaintiffs’ attorneys”, and that the plaintiffs’ counsel should “use their considerable resources and their network of law firms, NGOs, volunteers, and others” to establish contact with deported parents.

The Donald Trump administration missed a court-mandated deadline last month to reunite all children under the age of five with their families if they were separated at the border. Of the 102 such children, the government successfully reunited only 38 before the deadline passed on 10 July.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit, said that the administration’s failure to comply with the court order was “disappointing”.

“The court is holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire to get these kids reunited with their parents. That’s the most important thing,” he added.

Why were the children taken from their parents?

Images of groups of children held behind chain-link fences stunned America after being made public in June, and drew comparisons with Nazi Germany and Japanese-American internment camps.

Trump's enforcement policy at the time required that every adult caught entering the US illegally was detained and referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, even if they intended to claim asylum. Since children are not allowed in adult jails, they were housed elsewhere.The scenes unfolding along the US-Mexico border coincided with a crackdown on unauthorised immigration from Central America that was unveiled by the Trump administration in April.

Intentional or not, family separation was the “inevitable consequence” of such a policy, says The Washington Post, a reality that was recognised by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in May.

“Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family,” she told the NPR new service, and argued that the policy was “no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime”.

What did Donald Trump say?

The president claimed the fault lay with existing legislation passed under previous, Democrat administrations.

Pressed by White House reporters about the images of tearful family separations, Trump said: “I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law - that’s their law.”

In reality, “there is no federal law that stipulates that children and parents be separated at the border, no matter how families entered the United States”, says Snopes.

In the past, families entering the country illegally “were rarely criminally prosecuted”, says Politifact. Many were released to await a court date for an immigration hearing, while others were housed in family detention centres before being sent to appear before an immigration court or deported.

In June, Trump reversed the policy and said that families would no longer be separated.

How many children were taken?

From mid-April to May, more than 2,000 children from Central America were removed from their families at the US border and placed in government facilities, Reuters reports.

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