Report Details the Real Toll of Trump’s Family Separation Policy

"The United States is violating domestic law, international law, asylum law, judicial standards of impartiality—you name it, we're doing it as a country."

Beginning in 2018, there was an uptick in the number of families CBP separated citing "fraud," but in many cases, the circumstances CBP defined as fraud were simply being a family member other than a parent. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border are tantamount to “torture” and have subjected already vulnerable asylum seekers to “catastrophic harm,” according to a harrowing report released Thursday.

Transgender women were raped in federal immigration custody and HIV-positive trans women were denied medical care in detention, resulting in at least one in-custody death. Black queer immigrants had evidence of their asylum claims disappearing and were subsequently denied asylum. Untold numbers of families that migrated together were accused of committing “fraud” because the adult was not the biological parent of the child, but rather their legal guardian. Thousands of families were subjected to family separation, far exceeding the number provided by federal authorities.

Amnesty International’s report catalogs a wide swath of human rights abuses occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration, including blanket denials of bond, mass denials of asylum claims, “pushbacks” of asylum seekers to their countries of origin (an illegal practice under both U.S. and international law), and the use of arbitrary and indefinite detention. The human rights organization reports that the Trump administration separated more than 6,000 families between April and August 2018, more than double the number reported by authorities.

Those numbers do not include the number of families whose separations were not properly recorded.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April confirmed the “zero tolerance” policy at the border, it had already been in place for nearly a year. Beginning in July 2017, Border Patrol piloted the family separation policy in Texas and New Mexico. Family separation was made official policy in April 2018 upon the recommendation of federal immigration authorities within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Sessions as the “most effective” way to deter migration. It didn’t work.

Before the public was made aware that the policy was in place, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol separated still unknown numbers of families with little oversight or accountability.

In September 2018, Trump’s CBP informed Amnesty International that Border Patrol separated 6,022 “family units” between April and August 2018far exceeding what federal authorities had publicly admitted. DHS officials have yet to release complete statistics for the total number of families the Trump administration separated prior to April, however, DHS reported to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that it had separated 1,768 families between October 2016 and February 2018. The total of those available statistics “suggests that DHS forcibly separated approximately 8,000 ‘family units’ in 2017 and 2018 with the number of family separations skyrocketing under the ‘zero tolerance’ policy,” according to the report. This is only an estimate.

Without any understanding of how many families were actually separated or who they are, there’s no way to know who has been prioritized for reunification, who remains separated, and whose families are being acknowledged as families.

Beginning in 2018, there was an uptick in the number of families CBP separated citing “fraud,” but in many cases, the circumstances CBP defined as fraud were simply being a family member other than a parent. Amnesty International reports that thousands more families may have been separated, but were not counted in CBP statistics after the relationships were designated as “fraudulent.”

The reasons CBP separated families for “fraud” included: grandparents and others who “do not fit the definition of immediate family member”; those whose birth certificates and other documents CBP could not verify through consulates; and those who were otherwise unable to prove their family relationships, according to the report. 

Immigration attorney Eduardo Beckett has seen firsthand how federal immigration authorities refuse to acknowledge some family relationships, including with his client Maria, featured in Amnesty’s report. The 55-year-old grandmother from Brazil appeared at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico in August 2017, along with Matheus, her 17-year-old grandson who is disabled. Maria had raised her grandson since he was three and was abandoned by his mother. After they were separated, Maria was detained by ICE and Matheus was sent to a shelter and then transferred to child protection services in Connecticut. Even though Maria provided immigration officials with proof of legal guardianship over Matheus, authorities never questioned her legal guardianship of Matheus in immigration court proceedings or in Maria’s asylum case file.

There was protocol in place for handling families that encompassed guardians who were not a biological parent. Beckett told Rewire.News that so much of how federal immigration agencies have operated under Trump is in violation of long-respected policies, including the Parental Interests Directive that encompassed “primary caretakers of minor children of any immigration status.”
“Even the Supreme Court recognizes extended family, especially grandparents, as being guardians. Not only that, but in so many of these cases, guardians had legal documentation that they were the guardians of the child in their life. These relationships have been historically recognized as valid, but not by the Trump administration,” Beckett said. “In paperwork I received about Maria, there was no mention of her son being disabled. These federal agencies are very dishonestand I say that because I see their documentation and I know that it’s wrong because I represent the person’s case and I know the details. [Federal authorities] act like cowboys, like this is the Wild West and they can do whatever they want.”

Even though Maria faced death threats in Braziland had to be hospitalized while in detention because of dangerously high blood pressure for which she was not being provided proper medical carean immigration judge initially rejected her asylum claim. But because of media attention and intervention from a member of Congress, Maria was eventually released on parole.

Even given the chaotic nature of her case, Maria is one of the lucky ones, released from detention and reunited with her grandson. As Rewire.News reported, some grandparents who had legal guardianship of the children they migrated with were deported or remain separated. Amnesty International documented cases in which DHS made “demonstrably false claims of asylum-seeking families’ being unable to prove their family relationships, even when documentary evidence proved those relationships beyond doubt.”

The report makes the effects of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy clearwith children and parents already exhibiting symptoms of severe psychological distress and post traumatic stress disorder. Some family separation cases, according to Amnesty International, satisfy “the definitions of torture under United States and international law.” [page 7]

Amnesty International has issued recommendations to Congress and DHS regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, most notably urging Congress to pass legislation “banning the separation and/or detention of families with children,” otherwise there is nothing to stop Trump or any other administration from revising the policy.

“DHS has become a deportation regime. We’re seeing more than 90 percent of asylum cases denied in many areas. The United States is violating domestic law, international law, asylum law, judicial standards of impartialityyou name it, we’re doing it as a country,” Beckett said. “But they tweak it or spin it to make it seem legal. They deny first and then make it seem legit later. We’re demising the rights of asylum seekers, especially children. The Trump administration is moving to totally strip immigrant kids of any rights and protections. It’s a very scary world right now.”