Long before President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy separated migrant children from their parents at the Southwest border in 2018, his administration had been separating families for years. This article explains how the practice sprang from a decision made by the highest echelons of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which combines 22 different agencies into one of the largest federal law-enforcement departments in the world. The agency grew out of a national security apparatus that was established after 9/11 to vet foreigners entering the United States, averting terror attacks by terrorists trying to smuggle weapons or other materials into the country.
In the summer of 2017, a Bethany therapist named Mateo Salazar met a young Honduran girl, just five, who had been taken from her mother by DHS agents and put in a temporary shelter run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The girl, who had a toothy smile and bowl-cut black hair, was stoic until transportation-company employees started to leave her. Then she ran after them, banging on the glass doors. “She said she was going to stay with her mom, no matter what,” Salazar says. “She was scared.”
A few days after she arrived at the Bethany center, Salazar’s coworker, Jonathan White, began compiling a list of children separated from their parents. He consulted with HHS and ICE officials to find out how the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) could track down the parents to reunite them.
White spoke to superiors dozens of times about the dangers of family separation, according to documents I have seen. He warned that HHS’s shelter system was unprepared to house large numbers of separated children, who tend to be younger than those who cross the border on their own and need specialized care that detention centers are not equipped to provide. He also cautioned that the reunification process could be costly and time-consuming.
But he and other top DHS officials, including the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, were determined to move forward with it. They cited increasing numbers of migrant families crossing the border and 24-hour news coverage about them.
The administration declared that separating families was not the goal of its policy but an unfortunate side effect of prosecuting parents who crossed illegally with their children. But a mountain of evidence shows that, from the start, it was the aim.
The result was that courts, detention centers, and children’s shelters were overwhelmed; parents and their kids were lost to each other, often across the country; and four years later, some are still apart, though the Biden administration has promised to reunite them. Unlike other Trump projects, this one’s incompetence didn’t mitigate its malevolence; in fact, it was exacerbated by it. And the damage continues to this day. The reunification effort is only now getting underway, and it will take years before all the children who were separated from their parents can be reunited with them. child separation