The Trump administration has separated 81 migrant children from their families at the United States-Mexico border since an executive order sought to end the practice in June, according to government data.
- Since June 21, 76 adults were separated from the children, according to the data
- It showed 51 of those adults were criminally prosecuted
- At the height of the border separations and before the executive order to stop the practice, 2,400 children were separated from guardians
Despite the order and a federal judge’s later ruling, immigration officials are allowed to separate a child from a parent in certain cases — serious criminal charges against a parent, concerns over the health and welfare of a child or medical concerns.
Those caveats were in place before the zero-tolerance policy that prompted the earlier separations at the border.
The US Government decides whether a child fits into the areas of concern, which has sparked concern from some advocates of the families and immigrant rights groups that are afraid parents are being falsely labelled as criminals.
‘The welfare of the children in our custody is paramount’
From June 21, the day after US President Donald Trump’s executive order, through to December 4, 76 adults were separated from the children, according to the data obtained by AP.
Of those, 51 were criminally prosecuted — 31 with criminal histories and 20 for other, unspecified reasons, according to the data.
Nine were hospitalised, 10 had gang affiliations and four had extraditable warrants.
Two were separated because of prior immigration violations and orders of removal.
“The welfare of children in our custody is paramount,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US immigration enforcement.
“As we have already said — and the numbers show: separations are rare. While there was a brief increase during zero tolerance as more adults were prosecuted, the numbers have returned to their prior levels.”
Critics fear families separated on vague allegations
At its height over the northern summer, more than 2,400 children were separated.
The practice sparked global outrage from politicians, humanitarians and religious groups who called it cruel and callous.
Images of weeping children and anguished, confused parents were splashed across newspapers and television.
A federal judge hearing a lawsuit brought by a mother who had been separated from her child barred further separations and ordered the Government to reunite the families.
But the judge, Dana Sabraw, left the caveats in place and gave the option to challenge further separations on an individual basis.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who sued on behalf of the mother, said he hoped the judge would order the US Government to alert them to any new separations. Currently, lawyers do not know about other separations and therefore cannot challenge them.
“We are very concerned the Government may be separating families based on vague allegations of criminal history,” Mr Gelernt said.
According to the government data, from April 19 to September 30, 170 family units were separated because they were not found to be related — that included 197 adults and 139 minors.
That could include grandparents or other relatives if there was no proof of relationship.
Other separations were because the child was not a minor, the data showed.
During the budget year 2017, which began in October 2016 and ended in September 2017, 1,065 family units were separated, which usually means a child and a parent — 46 due to fraud and 1,019 due to medical or security concerns, according to data.
Ms Waldman said the data showed “unequivocally that smugglers, human traffickers, and nefarious actors are attempting to use hundreds of children to exploit our immigration laws in hopes of gaining entry to the United States”.
Thousands journey from Central America
Thousands of migrants have come up from Central America in recent weeks as part of caravans.
Mr Trump, a Republican, used his national security powers to put in place regulations that denied asylum to anyone caught crossing illegally, but a judge has halted that change as a lawsuit progresses.
The zero-tolerance policy over the northern summer was meant in part to deter families from illegally crossing the border.
Trump administration officials said the large increase in the number of Central American families coming between ports of entry has vastly strained the system.
But the policy — and what it would mean for parents — caught some federal agencies off guard.
There was no system in place to track parents along with their children, in part because after 72 hours children are turned over to a different agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been tasked with caring for them.
An October report by Homeland Security’s watchdog found immigration officials were not prepared to manage the consequences of the policy.
The resulting confusion along the border led to misinformation among separated parents who did not know why they had been taken from their children or how to reach them, and longer detention for children at border facilities meant for short-term stays and difficulty in identifying and reuniting families.
Backlogs at ports of entry may have pushed some into illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, the report found.