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A Brief History of Family Separations at the Southern Border

The Trump Administration oversaw many malicious, destructive policies, but few rankled as much as immigrant child separation. The program began in 2018 as a ‘zero-tolerance policy‘ that soon spun out of control. 

Suddenly, anyone who committed the misdemeanor offense of illegally crossing the border was detained and referred for prosecution. The policy removed children from parents and placed them under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services, who sometimes shipped them hundreds of miles away. The policy separated infants, toddlers, and children under five from their parents. There was no centralized system to categorize these separations, and families had little information regarding their children’s whereabouts. Sexual abuse was rampant. Hundreds of parents are still looking for their children. 

These separations were shocking but not new, as our most recent guest Laura Briggs pointed out to Mila this week.  

“We were all so focused on the Trump administration’s policy of taking the children of asylum seekers at the border,” she told Mila. “I knew a lot about the fact that the Obama administration had done this, the Bush administration had done this, and I was struck by the conversation about ‘this is not America.’ And I wanted people to really think about, what would it mean to say, ‘This is the United States. This is what we’ve been doing, and we’ve got to stop.'”

Trump falsely justified his Administration’s odious policy as a long-standing precedent—and the truth is complicated (but he’s still lying). 

According to Briggs, legally entrenched child separation predates the founding of the republic with the separation of enslaved African families. Native Americans became multi-generational victims of government-backed child-snatching regimes in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Family separation on the Mexican border traces its roots back to another controversial conservative: Ronald Reagan. 

President Ronald Reagan was deeply involved in Central and South America, backing right-wing coups, arming and supporting terrorists, and exacerbating drug-related violence. All told, Reagan and his dogs of war caused or supported horrifying carnage in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, and Colombia, to name a few. 

These wars and disruptions killed thousands and displaced many more. Unsurprisingly, some of these displaced people decided to make a better life for themselves and emigrated north to the United States. Reagan’s policies had turned much of the region into a series of failed states, so the number of would-be immigrants and asylum seekers swelled.  

First, the Reagan Administration refused to grant asylum to refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, people who were fleeing the political violence orchestrated by Reagan’s policies. Many of these asylum-seekers ended up entering the country illegally.

In 1984, Reagan instituted a policy that held immigrant children in detention until they could be released into a parent or guardian’s care. The policy had a problem: if the US also arrested a child’s parent, the child might languish in prison indefinitely.  

“The Reagan administration certainly didn’t want to see the refugees—that essentially its own policies had participated in creating—migrating to the United States. And so, in order to terrify people who were undocumented, children were held in immigration detention,” Briggs explained. “If you were undocumented and your kid was being held in immigration detention—if they had migrated without you, trying to find you—you couldn’t pick them up without yourself being deported. And since there were active wars still going on in the ’80s and ’90s, people very much didn’t want to be deported.”

Under these conditions, 15-year-old Jenny Flores was arrested and detained for months by immigration officials in 1985. She and three other young detainees sued. After more than a decade of litigation reaching even the Supreme Court, the two sides came to settle on the Flores Settlement Agreement

The Flores Agreement required the government to release immigrant children without delay, with preference to parents, family members, and then qualified programs. It also forced the government to put children in the “least restrictive” detention possible. Although the Flores Agreement tried to create humane treatment for immigrant children, they could still be detained at the border and held. Imprisoning children remained a fear tactic to dissuade illegal immigration. Unaccompanied children were supposed to be released after 72 hours, although this could be significantly longer in practice. 

In 2005, President George W. Bush instituted a “zero-tolerance policy,” prosecuting anyone who illegally crossed the southern border. However, according to the New York Times: “exceptions were generally made for adults who were traveling with minor children, as well as juveniles and people who were ill.”

The DREAM Act, first brought the House floor in 2001, sought to provide temporary deportation deferment and work permit eligibility for some undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. When it failed again to pass in 2011 President Obama took executive action and created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. DACA provided the same deferment and work permit eligibility.

In 2014 the number of unaccompanied minors rose dramatically. In response, the Obama Administration began detaining female-headed families with children until their immigration proceedings were complete. Obama explicitly enacted this policy to deter illegal immigration. Crucially, this policy did not separate families, it just detained them. The Trump Administration used this policy to justify its much more drastic actions. 

Less than two months into their term, the Trump Administration announced it was considering new policies to deter illegal immigration, including separating children from their families. By October 2017, it claimed to have removed more than 700 children from parents or guardians on the southern border. 

In mid-June 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the child separation policy by saying: “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.” 

Sessions and the Trump administration also changed existing asylum policy, making it harder to seek, especially for “Central American women who have sought safe haven from troubled domestic relationships in which they were subjected to repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” according to USA Today. 

Between mid-2017 and the end of 2018, more than 11,000 children were separated from their families and detained. Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 ending child separations after intense public backlash. They continued at a reduced rate, however.

On Feb 2. 2021, President Joseph Biden signed an executive order creating a task force to reunite separated children with parents and families. At the time of this writing, more than 600 separated children were still awaiting reunification. 

Child separation is not new to the Trump Administration, although it reflects that regime’s penchant to emulate the worst of US History on a grand scale. Trump and his cronies were able to separate children at a moment’s notice without breaking federal law. Although the separations are currently on hold, a new president could revive them quickly. Biden’s move to reunite children with their parents is an excellent first step, but we need lasting legislation to ensure this crime never happens again in America’s name. 


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