On Wednesday, President Trump issued an executive order to somewhat amend his own administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy, which has led to families being forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, parents and children will stop being separated and instead be held together in detention facilities indefinitely.
Activists say that holding families in immigration detention for an indefinite period of time is still cruel.
Outrage over the administration's policy escalated in recent days. But in the midst of the devastating stories, images, and audio showcasing the effect of this inhumane policy, confusion and misinformation has spread among the public. This is in part because members of the administration — including President Trump, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — have continued to lie and blame others for their own policy.
About 700 children were separated from their families between October 2017 and April 2018, prior to the policy being enacted. Since in early May, at least 2,300 kids were taken away from their parents. Wednesday's executive order doesn't address what will happen with these parents and children who were separated in the last months.
“Make no mistake—this executive order is a betrayal of families fleeing violence and persecution. Mothers, fathers, and children must not be held behind bars for prolonged periods for seeking safety. Not only does imprisoning children go against our country’s shared values of dignity and equality, but it is also unlawful and threatens to permanently stain the U.S. human rights record," Denise Bell, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International USA, said in statement provided to Refinery29. "People who are running for their lives have the right to seek protection. The United States cannot continue to treat vulnerable families fleeing horrific violence and persecution like criminals."
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the zero-tolerance policy?
In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. would start criminally prosecuting all adults caught crossing into the U.S. illegally. In the past, these migrants were held at an immigration detention center and then sent before an immigration judge, who would determine whether they were in the U.S. without authorization and should be deported.
But criminally prosecuting migrants apprehended at the border means they’re now held at a federal jails for a few weeks before being sent to federal judge, who determines whether they’ll get prison time. Being sent to federal jail means children inevitably get separated from their parents, since adults can’t keep the kids with them.
Read Sessions’ directive here.
How does the separation work?
After crossing the border, families are brought together to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility. Here’s where they get split up. It’s been widely reported that in some cases, officials took the children under the pretense that they would be getting a bath. Parents have said they were not given any information about where their children would be placed.
By law, authorities can only hold children at CBP facilities for three days since they’re not made for long-term holding. (There’s been reports of child abuse at these facilities for years, though CBP denies the claims.)
Within those 72 hours, kids are supposed to be transferred from immigration detention to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There are about 100 shelter facilities in 17 states where migrant children are held. These facilities are all operated by non-profit groups, which are contracted by ORR. According to the agency, children remain at these shelters for around 51 days on average. However, it’s been reported that many children have been detained for much longer than that.
At the moment, there’s about 10,000 migrant children in these facilities. According to ORR, most of the kids are unaccompanied minors, which means they crossed the border alone. But because of the influx of children separated from their families now being detained in these facilities, the Trump administration is planning to start erecting temporary shelters.
The first temporary facility — also known as a “tent city” — was set up in Tornillo, TX. The government wants it to hold around 4,000 minors. The cost of holding these children in tent cities is about $775 per person per night, much more expensive than holding them with their parents or in more permanent accommodations. (For the rest ORR shelters, the cost is somewhere between $250 and $300 per person per night, depending on the location.)
Once the children are in ORR custody, the plan is to reunite them with family members, foster parents, or sponsors in the U.S. Typically, parents would be the preferred option — but that’s not the case for the separated families since the parents remain detained by the U.S.
Is the Trump administration following a law passed by Democrats, like it says?
The zero-tolerance policy is entirely President Trump’s own making. His administration is choosing to criminally prosecute migrants and was choosing to split families. There’s no law in the books mandating children and parents be separated at the border, no matter how many times President Trump repeated that lie.
In fact, during Trump’s first 15 months in office, his administration released nearly 100,000 unauthorized immigrants who crossed the border illegally. That group included more than 61,000 family members.
Did previous presidents do this too?
No. Neither the Obama nor the Bush administrations separated families at the border.
What the Obama administration did, however, was detain families together at the height of the 2014 Central American migrants crisis. He also detained unaccompanied children (that’s where the 2014 pictures of tent cities and kids in cages come from.) These children followed the same process as those that are being separated from their families do today: Arrive at a CBP facility, be transferred to the ORR’s care, and be released to a sponsor.
President Obama tried to hold families in detention indefinitely, in hopes of deterring new migrants, which caused public outrage at the time. The policy was blocked by the courts because it violated the Flores settlement, a 1997 consent decree banning the federal government from keeping children in immigration detention for more than 20 days, even if they’re with their families.
Trump’s executive order will modify the Flores agreement in order to hold families in immigration detention for an indefinite period of time without releasing them. His EO will likely be challenged in court.
What happens after the families are separated? Are they being reunited?
Once parents are deported without their kids, it’s more difficult to reunite them. Former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Sandweg has said that many of these families might be permanently separated as a consequence.
Some parents who remain in the U.S. have also struggled to get their children back, too. A Guatemalan mother is currently suing the Trump administration, alleging immigration officials won’t tell her the whereabouts of her seven-year-old son or help them reunite.
Why have we only seen boys in detention centers? Where are the girls and toddlers?
Officials have not been forthcoming about where the migrant girls are being held. What we recently learned is that the Trump administration set up three detention centers in Texas for children under the age of five, called “tender age” shelters.
According to the AP, physicians and lawyers who visited the shelters say that while the facilities’ conditions are fine, the young children have been acting out because of the trauma of being separated from their families. (Several national medical organizations have come out against the family separation policy because of the long-lasting effects it will have on children.)
What about the 1,500 missing kids from a few weeks ago? Is that related?
No. The missing migrant children story and Trump’s family separation policy are two different matters.
The “missing” children are part of a group of nearly 7,000 kids who HHS recently reported it cannot locate were unaccompanied minors who arrived in the U.S. during FY2017 and were placed with sponsors, in many cases their own family members. The 1,475 children are not “lost” — the HHS report said that they were just unable to locate them after a phone call to their sponsors’ households.
What the story did raise concerns about is that HHS might already have enough strain trying to help the unaccompanied minors in its system and now they also have to deal with the influx of children being separated from their parents.
What is Congress doing about the family separation policy?
Well, things on Capitol Hill are kind of hectic.
Republicans have several immigration bills on the table that would address the issue of family separations, but they come at a cost. On Thursday, the House is voting on two competing bills that include language to end family separations, but overall their goal is to dramatically curb legal immigration, give the Trump administration money for its infamous border wall, and provide some sort of relief for Dreamers.
In the Senate, the entire Democratic caucus supports the Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Several Republican senators are also planning to introduce their own legislation.
Is the crisis over?
No. Families won't be separated, but instead will be held in immigration detention centers indefinitely. If this is something you're against, volunteer with and donate to organizations on the ground, go to a protest, and call your elected representatives.
This story was originally published at 2:40 p.m. It has since been updated.