Caitlin Dickerson and Ron Nixondec. New York Times, December 21, 2017
The Trump administration is considering a plan to separate parents from their children when families are caught entering the country illegally, according to officials who have been briefed on the plans. The forceful move is meant to discourage border crossings, but immigrant groups have denounced it as draconian and inhumane.
Under current policy, families are kept intact while awaiting a decision on whether they will be deported; they are either held in special family detention centers or released with a court date. The policy under discussion would send parents to adult detention facilities, while their children would be placed in shelters designed for juveniles or with a “sponsor,” who could be a relative in the United States, though the administration may also tighten rules on sponsors.
The policy is favored by the White House, and has been approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to three officials at the Department of Homeland Security and one at the White House who have all been briefed on the proposal but declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. The officials said that the new Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who has final approval power, has yet to sign off on the proposal.
The debate comes as the administration faces an influx of people crossing the southern United States border illegally. As soon as President Trump took office, the number of people caught crossing the border dropped sharply, a sign that far fewer people were even trying. Only 11,677 apprehensions were recorded in April, the lowest number in a least 17 years, according to Customs and Border Protection.
Administration officials heralded the drop as a “Trump effect,” with his tough talk on illegal immigration and a surge in immigration arrests discouraging Mexicans and Central Americans from making the journey.
But the number of people caught has been on the rise, reaching 29,086 in November, the most since January, a trend that has worried some administration officials and is weighing on the decision to separate parents from children. That month, 7,000 “family units” were apprehended, as well as 4,000 “unaccompanied minors,” or children traveling without an adult relative.
The vexing question of how to stem the flow of migrants into the country has frustrated the White House, under both Democratic and Republican control, for years. Former President Barack Obama tried to do it by fast-tracking some deportations and by starting a media campaign in Central America to warn people about the dangers of the journey to the United States. But both of those measures were largely unsuccessful, and crossings reached unprecedented levels during the Obama presidency.
Most Mexicans and Central Americans trying to enter the United States are considered economic migrants and are thus denied asylum, which requires evidence of persecution. But asylum cases often take years to litigate, and the Trump administration has made a point of discouraging people from even trying to come. When he was Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, now the president’s chief of staff, often talked about the dangers of the trip.
Rape and kidnappings for ransom are common en route to the United States, and a report from the United Nations International Organization of Migration documented 232 cases from January through July of people who died trying to cross rugged terrain or rivers, or in unsafe conditions inside trains or buses, even before they got to the border.
Ms. Acevedo said she saw [her son] Mateo for the first time since their separation last week, through a five-minute video call arranged by the facility where he is being held. Mateo cried the whole time, she said, adding, “It’s a form of torture.”
She said that if her husband had known that he would be separated from their son, they would not have tried to cross the border.
That reaction is precisely what the creators of the policy are hoping for, according to the officials, who also said the administration was considering new policies on unaccompanied minors.