Opinion: Trump’s family separation policy was even more cruel and widespread than we imagined

Guatemalan asylum seeker Hermelindo Che Coc inspects his 6-year-old son after reuniting last July after two months of separation that occurred when they crossed the border from Mexico.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

We knew that the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents as a deterrent to others who might seek asylum in the United States was inhumane, poorly planned and disastrously executed. Now a new government report reveals that the pubic didn’t know the half of it.

The incompetence is astounding.

Under a July 2018 court order that ended the separations and ordered family reunifications, the government counted 2,737 children separated from their parents. Most of those families have been reunited. But Thursday’s report by the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that record-keeping was so bad they have no way of knowing how many families actually were separated.

It also found that separations began well before Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions announced his “zero tolerance” policy, which called for all border crossers to be arrested even if they were exercising their legal right to seek asylum. Under that policy, once the parents were detained on misdemeanor charges of illegal entry, the children were taken away and treated as though they had arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult. Yet the report found that the practice actually began the previous year, before the zero tolerance policy was supposedly put in place.


No one has been held accountable for this fiasco.

In fact, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS division that takes custody of unaccompanied migrant minors, said minors separated from their parents by the government accounted for 3.6% of all unaccompanied minors it processed in August 2017 — up from 0.3% a year earlier.

ORR, though, only tracked the placements of the children informally, and has no definitive record of how many minors had been sent to shelters, to the custody of family or to other guardians in foster care.

“Officials estimate that thousands of separated children entered ORR care and were released prior to the June 26, 2018, court order,” the report said. “Because the tracking systems in use at that time were informal and designed for operational purposes rather than retrospective reporting, ORR was unable to provide a more precise estimate or specific information about these children’s placements (for example, whether the children were released to sponsors who were relatives, sponsors who were non-relatives, foster care, etc.).”

And even after making its report to the court, the government kept finding kids that it had separated from their parents who were not included in the initial count.

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No one has been held accountable for this fiasco. Nevertheless, it’s necessary to pause and focus on what this administration has done.

In the name of xenophobia, the Trump administration apprehended asylum-seeking families, hit the adults with trumped-up charges and jailed them, then stripped them of custody of their children, who were then packed off to detention centers or shelters until they could be placed with extended family members or friends or foster care, causing who knows what levels of psychological damage to the children.

All because they had the audacity to ask for our help. That’s atrocious.