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5 things we know, 5 things we don’t know about family separation

At the moment, there is significant concern and confusion over how and why the United States is separating immigrant families at the border. Let us add some clarity, to the degree we can. Here are a few things we know and don’t know about this policy action, which was initiated by President Donald Trump.

What we know:

1. So far more than 2,000 children, of all ages — including infants — have been separated from parents due to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which prosecutes everyone who enters the country illegally. United States Customs and Border Protection has put the number at 2,235 children separated from their families between May 5 and June 9. That amounts to an average of 65 kids a day. The Department of Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with caring for the children, told the NewsHour today there is no blanket policy ensuring infants and toddlers stay with parents. The agency says their fate is decided on a discretionary, case-by-case basis.

2. Many of those parents are breaking the law. Other than asylum seekers (see below), parents illegally entering the country are committing a crime, and the federal government can prosecute them as criminals. The White House argues it is a core duty of the president to execute the law fully. The president does have discretion in how that happens, however. Previously, most cases went to civil immigration courts. Now parents are charged as felony criminals, triggering separation from their children. Though the Obama administration did separate some families, that was the exception. It is now the rule.

3. Families are a minority of undocumented immigrants caught in U.S. The United States Border Patrol apprehended 310,531 people in 2017. Of those, the agency estimated that 75,802, or 24 percent, were family units.

4. Undocumented immigrants had a high rate of making court hearings after release. Republicans argue that previous policies provided an enormous loophole, because undocumented families who were released into the interior of the country pending their immigration hearings would skip their court hearings and remain in the U.S. But at least one thorough study shows the opposite is true. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) found that in 2015, 86 percent of immigrants released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention did show up at their court hearing afterward. That number is even higher for undocumented mothers; 97 percent of them complied with all requirements in the three years after their release.

5. The vast majority of families crossing the border are actual families. The Trump administration has said it’s concerned about smugglers posing as families. But the chief patrol agent at U.S. Border Patrol confirmed today that there were just 148 cases of fraud by those pretending to be family units from last October through April. That’s out of tens of thousands of border crossings.

What we don’t know:

1. Are families applying for asylum also being separated? The administration insists they are not. But those on the ground say it is happening. It is not clear if this is a case of staff confusion or White House obfuscation on how it’s handling asylum seekers.

2. How many infants and toddlers have been separated from parents? And how does the U.S. government make sure kids who can’t speak yet are returned to a true family member? Neither Customs and Border Protection nor the Department of Health and Human Services could answer the NewsHour’s questions today about how many of the youngest kids are being held in shelters. It is also not clear how kids too young to communicate are being reunited with parents.

3. How long will these kids be in shelters? (And how long will it take parents to reunite with them?) HHS could not answer questions today about the percentage of separated kids who have been reunited with their parents, nor how long it takes for the reunification to happen. An official with the agency told reporters, “the policy is new” and added that “we are still working through this.”

4. Where will DHS and HHS keep all these children? Lawmakers are discussing possible funding for increased beds and facilities, but it is not yet clear how many will be needed. The HHS official who spoke with reporters today said the agency is trying to stay ahead of demand, but also said they hope that the numbers will decrease as families are deterred from trying to enter the country. So far, there is no evidence of a deterrence effect.

5. How will this end? It is far from clear, and it may take many months or more to reach a resolution. Democrats point out that the president could reverse the policy himself, but Trump has said he wants Congress to act and permanently fix the incongruity he sees in immigration law. At this moment, Republicans in Congress are debating different plans to detain families together. Democrats are highly resistant to that idea and would like families to be released while they wait for the immigration process to play out. Those differences seem hard to square. A possible leverage point could come in September. Government funding runs out Sept. 30, and both sides could use that deadline to push for their immigration ideas.