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Separating Immigrant Families

is one of many moves the Trump administration took to control immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border




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Why It Matters

  • All people deserve the right to raise their children in a healthy and safe environment, but the administration’s immigration policies are tearing families apart.

  • Starting in April 2018, former President Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed U.S. immigration policy to sharply increase separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • Later in 2018, the administration proposed a "family detention rule" that would end the current practice of limiting how long children can be detained and allow the U.S. government to jail immigrant families and children indefinitely (whether or not they are together).

Key Players

Donald Trump

President of the United States

Elected to Office: 11-8-2016
Mike Pence

Vice President of the United States

Elected to Office: 11-8-2016
Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. Attorney General (DOJ)

Resigned: 11-07-2018
Alex Azar

Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Nominated by Trump: 11-13-2017
Scott Lloyd

Former Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (HHS)

Resigned: June 2019
William Barr

U.S. Attorney General (DOJ)

Nominated by Trump: 1-3-2019
Nikki Haley

Former Ambassador to the United Nations

Resigned: 10-9-2018


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  • 1-27-2020
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  • 9-1-2019
    Supreme Court temporarily permits third-country rule, which denies most asylum claims at the Southern border
  • 8-21-2019
    Trump administration announced a final family detention rule that would allow the administration to detain children indefinitely
  • 8-12-2019
    Trump administration issues final “public charge” rule designed to stop immigrants from accessing public benefits to which they are legally entitled
  • 7-16-2019
    Rule issued that makes immigrants ineligible for U.S. asylum if they passed through Mexico — denying asylum to nearly all South American immigrants
  • 5-10-2019
    Trump administration issues a proposed rule that would evict mixed-status families from public housing
  • 11-9-2018 
    Trump announces a policy to severely restrict asylum for immigrants
View more +
  • 10-10-2018 
    Trump administration proposes a rule to keep immigrants with low incomes from entering the U.S. or changing their immigration status.
  • 9-7-2018
    Trump administration proposes family detention rule to let U.S. jail immigrant children indefinitely
  • 6-11-2018
    Jeff Sessions says immigrants fleeing domestic violence don’t qualify for asylum
  • 4-6-2018
    U.S. sharply increases separation of immigrant families at the border
  • 3-27-2018
    Trump administration says it plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census; the addition is later blocked by the courts
  • 12-18-2017
    Refugee office head says he interfered with undocumented women’s abortion access
  • 12-14-2017
    Trump administration starts detaining pregnant immigrants during legal proceedings
  • 10-10-2017
    ACLU sues ORR for blocking a detained undocumented woman’s access to abortion
  • 9-5-2017
    The Trump administration announces it’s ending DACA







“I did not even have a chance to comfort my son, because the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat. I was crying too.”

The Flores Settlement Agreement

The Trump-Pence administration caused international backlash by forcibly separating roughly 3,000 immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. The United Nations called it inhumane, physicians warned of extreme emotional harm, and thousands of people protested in "Keep Families Together" marches across the United States. It could take years to identify all the immigrant children who were separated from their parents.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration proposed a family detention rule that would gut a decades-old agreement, called the Flores Settlement Agreement — which ensures that immigrant children who enter the U.S. are treated humanely. 

What happens to immigrant children without the Flores Agreement’s legal protections? Without those protections, the government doesn’t have to meet any standards on the conditions of its immigration detention centers, and it doesn’t have any limits on how long it can jail children. So, immigrant children could be detained for longer periods of time in harsher, jail-like detention centers — with or without their parents.

Background on the Separation of Immigrant Families

Ending Family-Friendly Training for ICE

The administration nixed requirements that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers get trained on family-friendly tactics. It also quietly ended protections for immigrant children and their parents.

Center for Investigative Reporting
The Government Still Hasn’t Reunited Families

After public uproar over the inhumane separation of immigrant families, a federal judge ordered the administration to quickly reunite immigrant children with their parents. However, officials have been slow to act and missed several reunification deadlines.

The Cut
Details of Immigration Detention Center Conditions Continually Emerging

Reports on atrocious detention center conditions showed the harmful effects on immigrant children. One doctor described the holding centers as “torture facilities.” Kids at the U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, suffered from flu and lice outbreaks and left without adequate adult supervision. Four toddlers were hospitalized after lawyers found them to be unresponsive, feverish, vomiting, and without medical care. From September 2018 to spring 2019, six immigrant children have died in U.S. custody amid overcrowded conditions. 

ABC News
Holding Children in Jail-Like Detention Centers

Gutting the Flores Settlement Agreement and adhering to the administration’s family detention rule means that children could be held in jail-like detention centers for long periods of time. They wouldn’t be guaranteed access to basic necessities, like food and water or access to medical treatment.

Detaining More and More Immigrants

The Trump administration built its capacity to detain more immigrant children, adults, and families for longer periods of time. Immigrant detention centers wanted to add thousands of beds, and the administration considered holding 20,000 additional undocumented children on military bases.

Medicating Children Without Parents’ Consent

Staff at a Texas immigrant detention center violated child welfare laws by administering psychotropic drugs to dozens of children without a court order or parental consent.

Latinos Avoiding Health Care Services Out Of Fear

Fears of interacting with authorities and facing family separation are causing many immigrants to avoid seeking health care. Across the United States, health centers that serve immigrant communities have seen drops in enrollment.

Associated Press
How Many Immigrant Children Have Been Separated From Their Parents?

Exactly how many immigrant children have been separated from their families is unknown. We do know that at least 2,800 immigrant children were separated from their parents under the “zero tolerance policy” in spring 2018. In the year since Trump signed an executive order saying the separations should stop, an additional 700 immigrant children were separated from their families and housed in places that lacked sanitary basics like toothbrushes, diapers and soap.

Administration Issued Final Rule to Allow Indefinite Detention of Children

On Aug. 23, 2019, the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule to end the Flores Settlement Agreement, including its 20-day limit on detaining children. The final rule would have expanded DHS and HHS’s authority to jail migrant families in poor and inhumane conditions, and allowed for the indefinite detention of certain undocumented children and their families.

Associated Press
Separating Families Who Were Seeking Asylum

Immigrant kids and parents who were separated at the Southern border include asylum-seekers who are fleeing violence in their home countries — even though the Trump administration denied it.

New York Daily News
Causing Lifelong Psychological Trauma

Separating families and detaining children is a public health issue. More than 250,000 doctors have urged the administration to end its family separation policies, and the American Medical Association warned that the administration’s immigration policies could cause children extreme physical and emotional stress. Research shows that even brief periods of detention can cause long-lasting psychological trauma for children — including anxiety, depression, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that could last a lifetime. Human rights advocates and child welfare experts also condemn detaining children.

TIME Magazine
Detaining Families for Months or Years

The administration’s family detention rule would allow the government to jail more  children, adults, and families while they wait for their legal hearings — which often takes months and can stretch out for years.

Associated Press
Already Treating Children Badly

The administration failed to protect detained children even with the Flores Settlement Agreement  in place. Children in custody reported facing a range of abuses, including verbal abuse, sexual assault, enforced hunger, untenable sleeping conditions, and unsanitary drinking water. In 2018, children were being detained an average of 59 days — up from 35 days in 2016.

Huffington Post
Latinos Who Live in the United States Are Feeling the Effects

Latinos make up the majority of immigrants crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border. Research shows that current immigration policies are causing extreme psychological stress and anxiety for Latino parents, including those who are U.S.-born and documented.

Latino USA
HUD “Mixed-Status” Rule to Evict or Separate Families

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a rule that will ban whole families from public housing if one or more household members aren't eligible for federal housing assistance — even though ineligible members already are excluded from financial assistance. The rule could effectively evict as many as 108,000 people in mixed-status families. For example, a mother who is an undocumented immigrant or has temporary immigration status would be forced to either move out and away from her assistance-eligible children, or stay together with her children without assistance at all — which could end in homelessness.

Detaining a Total of Over 15,000 Immigrant Kids

As of May 2019, U.S. Border Patrol had about 2,000 immigrant children in custody and HHS was housing about 13,200 minors (with or without their families).


Related Issues

Public Benefits for Immigrants

Immigrant Access to Abortion

Detention of Pregnant Immigrants

Legal Status for Dreamers


2020 Census

The Muslim Ban

Pregnant Travelers