All About the U.S. Separating Families at Its Border: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Since April, the Trump administration’s policy has been to pursue criminal charges against all individuals who attempt to cross the U.S. border illegally. That has led to a dramatic rise in the number of parents being separated from their children and reports of families being split up even if they are seeking asylum. The administration says the policy is necessary to deter illegal immigration, while critics on both sides of the aisle say the policy is cruel and violates American values.

1. Why are immigrant children and parents being separated?

On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was adopting a "zero tolerance" policy toward people caught attempting to cross illegally into the U.S. at the southern border. Under the policy, adults caught at the border are referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Any children accompanying those adults are being treated as unaccompanied minors and temporarily placed in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security. The Trump administration says the policy is aimed at deterring people attempting to cross into the U.S.

2. Has the U.S. always done this?

No. Under past administrations border patrol agents issued notices to most undocumented immigrants to appear in court, then released them. Critics of the so-called catch-and-release policy, including the president, argue that many of the people released didn’t show up for their court proceedings. Even Republicans critical of catch and release, however, don’t support the new administration policy. "Changing from catch-and-release does not require adopting the wicked family separation policy," Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote June 18 on Facebook.

3. What does the law say?

President Donald Trump has falsely attributed the need to separate children from their parents and legal guardians to a law passed by Democrats. Congressional Republicans and the administration have blamed the separations on a 1997 court settlement, Flores v. Reno. That settlement, however, does not require the separation of accompanied minors from parents. Instead, it favors releasing minors or, if there is no one to release them to, that they be held "in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs." That includes food, water, medical attention and "contact with family members who were arrested with the minor." The administration could end the policy of family separation without any action from Congress.

4. How many families have been divided?

On June 18, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California released what she said were Homeland Security statistics showing that 2,342 children were separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9 -- about 67 children per day.

5. Does this policy apply to asylum seekers?

It’s legal for asylum seekers to approach the southern U.S. border at an official port of entry and request asylum. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has said that it is not the policy of the U.S. to separate asylum seekers from their children. But some media reports suggest otherwise. Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona wrote to Nielsen on June 16 asking if asylum seekers were also being separated from their children.

6. Where are the children and parents being taken?

Under the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, all adults caught attempting to illegally cross into the U.S. along the southern border are referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Minors apprehended at the border are held in processing centers run by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is required to transfer the children to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within three days. Including children who entered the U.S. unaccompanied by caregivers, there are 11,786 immigrant children being held in shelters in 17 states, including one in McAllen, Texas, where a former Walmart Inc. store has been converted into a detention center for nearly 1,500 immigrant boys.

7. What’s Congress doing?

House Republicans released an immigration draft bill on June 14 that would reverse the Flores settlement setting standards for the treatment of unaccompanied minors. Under the House bill, the government would be able to detain children as adults and hold them with their families indefinitely. After initial confusion, the White House backed the measure, and Trump has urged Democrats to sign on to Republican legislative efforts. Feinstein has introduced the Keep Families Together Act. This bill would prevent border patrol agents from separating children from their parent or legal guardian at a port of entry or within 100 miles of the border with the U.S. unless it is in the child’s best interest. Forty-eight Senate Democrats support the bill, but no Republicans are co-sponsoring it. John Cornyn, the number two Senate Republican, said he and a group of Republican senators, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and James Lankford, are working on a narrow bill to end family separation,

The Reference Shelf

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s "Myths vs. Facts" on its zero-tolerance immigration prosecutions.
  • Text of Flores v. Reno settlement.
  • Bloomberg News on Republican concerns over Trump’s family separation policy.
  • Polls conducted by Quinnipiac University and for CNN show large majorities of Americans disapprove of the new family separation policy.
  • The American Bar Association argues that the Trump separation policy "violates rights to family integrity and due process."
  • Bloomberg Opinion on how pulling children from parents "is brutal, immoral and un-American."
  • Bloomberg QuickTakes on the "Dreamers," undocumented young adults brought to the U.S. as children, and past efforts at immigration reform.

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