Originally published by VOX
The Trump administration has separated more families at the US-Mexico border than it’s previously admitted — including untold numbers that were never officially counted as “separations” because Border Patrol agents claimed the people they were separating weren’t actually families.
And those unofficial separations are likely still ongoing.
The disturbing discovery comes in a new report from Amnesty International that offers a sweeping rebuke of the administration’s approach to asylum seekers from Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere at the border. The report calculates that more than 6,000 people (including at least 3,000 children) were separated from relatives at the border from late spring to mid-August (with the bulk of those separations happening before the end of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, after a public outcry, in late June).
More worrisomely, the report also sheds light on another tool that immigration agents have used to separate families: alleging that the family isn’t really a family at all.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials told Amnesty that cases of suspected “fraud” aren’t reliably counted as separations. That’s especially alarming because fraud allegations can be used to separate families after they’ve presented themselves legally for asylum at a port of entry. The Amnesty report documents cases in which families who came “the right way” were separated anyway, with fraud as an excuse.
The government is now admitting that it doesn’t know how many families have been subjected to this fate. Border officials may be continuing to separate families as a punitive measure by accusing them of fraud — even after the purported end of the separation policy.
“The total number of families forcibly separated, and the trauma they have endured under this abusive practice, are still coming to light,” the Amnesty report says. But part of that slow process of discovery is realizing how much will never be known.
More than 6,000 people were separated from family members during the peak of the “zero tolerance” policy
The closest thing to a full accounting of family separations — 2,600 children — came as part of the lawsuit in which a federal judge ordered families still separated as of June 26 to be reunited. But that suit was just a snapshot of separated families in the system at one moment of time — after the “zero tolerance” policy that turned family separation into widespread policy had been in effect across the border for more than two months. (Families had also been separated for prosecution or other reasons prior to this, stretching back to the Obama administration.)
Now, though, we have a slightly more complete count of the families separated as a direct consequence of Trump’s policies. Customs and Border Protection officials told Amnesty researchers that from April 19 (when DHS started implementing “zero tolerance”) to August 15, 6,022 “family units” were separated.
This most likely means that 6,022 people in total experienced the effects of family separation, not 6,022 families, with each family containing multiple people. In public statistics about how many immigrants it’s apprehending, CBP tends to use “family unit” to refer to each person who travels as part of a family, and told Amnesty the number was likely calculated in the same way. (Sources familiar with the implementation of family separation shared that impression.).
That’s consistent with previous numbers. CBP said in June, for example, that it had separated 3,935 family members between April 19 and May 31. On June 20, President Trump signed an executive order ordering an end to the default prosecution of parents for illegal entry (which had led to separation from their children).
The typical family usually included about one child per parent, according to previously released CBP statistics. That means during the peak of family separation, over 3,000 children were separated from their parents — more than the snapshot provided in the government’s lawsuit filings indicates.
But that still isn’t anywhere near a complete statistic. Because, as the Amnesty researchers discovered, the government doesn’t always count a family separation as a separation.
Grandparents separated from grandchildren and cases of CBP-labeled “fraud” aren’t counted as separations
Before and after the rise and fall of “zero tolerance,” DHS has been clear that it will separate children from relatives under certain circumstances: when it believes the children to be in danger, or in cases of suspected “fraud.” “Fraud” ostensibly means that an unrelated adult is posing as the parent of a child as a way of sneaking more easily into the US, given the extra protections granted to children in the immigration system. But in practice, DHS policy is to separate people on suspicion of “fraud” if:
- The adult isn’t the parent or legal guardian of the child they’re traveling with — even if it’s a grandparent who is raising the child as their own;
- The family’s documentation can’t be verified by the embassy of the family’s home country; or
- Immigration officers have some other reason to believe there’s insufficient evidence of the parent-child relationship
A Congressional Research Service report published in July looked at pre-”zero tolerance” statistics and found very few cases of documented separations based on suspicions of fraud (challenging the Trump administration’s representation that cartels routinely use children to smuggle adult members into the country).
But CBP officials told the Amnesty researchers a different story — that it simply doesn’t count fraud allegations as family separations. A document by lead Amnesty researcher Brian Griffey for Thursday’s report says, “CBP informed Amnesty International that all of its public statistics exclude separated families whose relationships authorities categorize as ‘fraud.’”
That means the older report might have undercounted separations by quite a lot. And many of those unofficial separations were probably not cartels, but families separated based on thin suspicions.
In January, April, and May, Amnesty researchers interviewed 52 asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border. Fifteen of them, 13 parents and two grandparents, had been separated from the children they were traveling with.
For the most part, these weren’t cases of zero tolerance. Nearly all the families had arrived at ports of entry to seek asylum — in other words, they were entering the US legally, and doing exactly what Trump administration officials said parents should do if they didn’t want to be separated from their children. But they were separated anyway. In most cases, the reason — implicit or explicit — was an allegation of fraud.
By the government’s definition, the grandparents were definitionally fraudulent if they didn’t have legal guardianship; one grandmother ended up separated from her developmentally disabled grandson for more than a year after they were separated.
Not all of the parents were told why they had been separated from their children, but some were told that they hadn’t proven there was a relationship; in other cases, CBP officials told Amnesty that neither the adult nor child had provided documentation. But most of the parents had, in fact, arrived with evidence — passports, birth certificates, etc. — and presented it to officials when making their asylum claims.
In one case, four fathers were forcibly separated from their children upon arriving in the US in fall of 2017, with no reason given for the separation; ICE told Amnesty that they had not provided identification documents, but CBP confirmed that ID documents were in the fathers’ and children’s files.
According to official statistics, CBP only separated 36 families at ports of entry from October 2017 to July 2018. But Amnesty researchers ran into 15 such families when it spoke to only 52 asylum seekers over three separate trips. That indicates that a lot of cases of families who arrive legally — and do everything the “right” way — have been separated because a border official asserts that they haven’t done enough to prove their child is their own.
“Zero tolerance” may be over. But without any real attention paid to allegations of family fraud, it’s impossible to say that the Trump administration has stopped separating families on a regular basis.