“Thousands” more migrant children were forcibly separated from their families at the US-Mexico border under Trump administration policy than was previously reported, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General. What’s more, the separations began much earlier than the summer of 2018.
According to the report, there was a “steep increase” in migrant child detentions in 2017, indicating that the practice that has become colloquially synonymous with the “zero tolerance” police, in its entirety, was put into effect at least a full year before the policy existed.
The report states that the actual number of migrant children separated from their families is “unknown” to the HHS.
The public has known about the 2,737 children separated between June and December of 2018 because of an ACLU class action lawsuit against the government. The federal judge handling the lawsuit, Ms. L vs. ICE, ordered the administration to identify and reunite families who had been separated at the border and to provide various scheduled updates on numbers of children still in custody, as well as information about the whereabouts of their parents or guardians. Figures supplied to the judge by the federal government in this lawsuit revealed that more than 2,000 children had been separated from their families. “However, this number does not represent the full scope of family separations,” the OIG report states.
Specifically, the figures reported to the federal judge do not include children who were separated from their parents in the summer of 2017, when, the OIG notes, there was an increase in migrant child detention. “Officials estimated that ORR received and released thousands of separated children prior to a June 26, 2018, court order,” the report states, referring to an order given by the federal judge in Ms. L vs. ICE. This means that “thousands” more children, who were not accounted for, were detained and released by the Trump administration before the public even knew about the policy.
Federal agents started enforcing family separations in July 2017, according to the new report. Now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy in April 2018.
The Trump administration has not held back on false claims concerning this policy, beyond Sessions’ liberties with the truth in his statement. Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen flat out denied the existence of any family separation policy amid public horror and outcry in June 2018. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” the secretary tweeted. But by then, the policy had in fact been in effect for more than a year.
Migrant rights groups had already been warning that there were likely many more families separated by the Trump administration the greater public had been aware of by the summer of 2018. In March of last year, the ACLU and immigrant, asylum, and refugee rights groups came out with allegations that the administration was separating families at the southern border. A refugee rights group, the Women’s Refugee Commission, identified 429 cases of what it had deemed family separations at the border by March 2018, according to reporting from The Guardian at the time.
The consequences of the “zero tolerance” policy on top of a variety of other severe anti-immigrant policies directed largely at Black and brown populations have been catastrophic for immigrant families and communities.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2018, there seemed to be a constant flow of reports highlighting the horrific human impacts of these policies. To name a few reports of alleged abuse that broke over the summer: Children were allegedly injected with psychiatric drugs without their consent in ICE detention, pregnant mothers were reported to have been shackled while in ICE detention, and two children under the age of 10 died while in Customs and Border Protection custody in December. Additionally, the United Nations said that the US detention of migrant children “may amount to torture.”
According to NPR, this report is the Trump administration’s first official acknowledgment that it was using family separations at the border to deter Central American migrants from coming to the US.
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(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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