Long before the Trump administration announced it was separating families at the border, agents in several CBP sectors began to notice that children were disappearing from their parents. Immigration lawyers in Texas and Arizona began sharing individual cases with national networks of advocates, who prepared official complaints to file with the DHS inspector general. Some of these groups even started contacting reporters in preparation for stories. By late summer, people inside and outside the government were noticing that a policy had already begun to take shape.
By August, officials in the Border Patrol’s Yuma and El Paso sectors had separated more than 1,500 children from their parents under a pilot program that was part of a larger “zero tolerance” policy that started in May. By then, they were referring all migrants who crossed the border illegally to prosecution, including parents traveling with their children.
At the time, most Border Patrol supervisors and some senior leaders in DHS endorsed this approach. In public, they portrayed it as a necessary part of the job. They told Congress that enforcing the nation’s immigration laws was one of their most important tasks, and they argued that separating children from their parents was an inevitable side effect of prosecuting those who broke the law.
The problem was that the system wasn’t set up to handle this kind of operation. Courts, detention centers and child shelters were overwhelmed with the numbers of separated children, whose parents had been prosecuted for crossing into the country illegally. In many cases, the children were lost to the system or ended up in foster care in states far from their mothers. Some parents never found them, while others are now incarcerated or have been deported.
It has been said of other shambolic government projects that incompetence mitigated the malevolence. In the case of family separation, the opposite happened: A flagrant failure to prepare meant that courts and detention centers were overburdened; that children were kept in a limbo of uncertainty for months; that some are still not reunited with their parents; and that those who have been reunited will carry scars with them for years to come.
When White learned that Miller was pushing the idea of separating families, he urged his superiors not to move forward with it. He pointed out that the HHS program for displaced children was ill-equipped to take in large numbers of separated children, which tend to be younger and require more specialized housing than those who arrive at DHS shelters without their parents. He also noted that it would be difficult to keep up the pace of reunifications once the policy went into full effect. Nevertheless, White and other top DHS officials pressed ahead, even as the number of children being separated increased dramatically. child separation