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How the Trump administration explains ongoing family separations at the border

The American Civil Liberties Union says the Trump administration has continued to separate migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, despite a federal judge’s 2018 ruling to stop the practice. Amna Nawaz talks to the ACLU’s Lee Galernt about how many kids have been affected, why the numbers are rising and what the administration’s rationale is for the separations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the American Civil Liberties Union says the Trump administration has continued to separate migrant children from their parents at the southwest U.S. border.

    Amna Nawaz has our report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Now, Lee Gelernt is the lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. And he's representing the separated families, and can tell us more about today's court filing.

    Lee Gelernt, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with that number. The exact number is 911 children you have identified in this court filing as having been separated from their families between June 28 of last year and June 29 of this year.

    Start with that. How did you arrive at that number? What's that based on?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    That's right.

    And so that's not a number that we discovered on our own. We would have no way of doing that. Those are numbers the court ordered the government to give us, and the latest numbers we got from the government were 911.

    We get an Excel spreadsheet that shows the separations. And they have been going up monthly. And the really shocking thing about this is that the government is claiming this they're doing this for the children's benefit because the parents have a criminal history.

    What we expected to see from the government were very serious abuses against the children themselves. What it turns out is, they're separating children for things as minor as the parent's old traffic offense.

    In one case, it says misdemeanor nonviolence offense for $5 or disorderly conduct or a DUI. Shocking they're doing this, and for such minor crimes. And what we have also found out is that the children are younger than even first time last summer.

    Little babies and toddlers are being separated on the pretext that the parents are a danger to them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, I want to dig into those a little bit more, Lee, but let's start with what the acting secretary of homeland security has said in public.

    He has testified that, of course, separations do continue, but only in extraordinarily rare circumstances and only, as you mentioned, when it is in the best interests of the child, when the child is in some way at risk.

    And we know that there are cases out there. I have seen them myself, well-documented cases of child smuggling or abuse or neglect. How many of those 911 cases would you say fall under that category?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Yes, so there's a lot in there. Let me pull it apart, because I think that the administration is really being misleading in those statements.

    To begin with, you can look at it percentage-wise or you can look at how many children are being separated. We now know over 900 since the injunction. And these are little children. Even one impermissible separation would be too much. And I will let the public judge for themselves whether 900 little children being separated after the court's injunction is too much.

    The second thing I want to point out is, it's apples and oranges to talk about trafficking here. These are cases where the government admits it's the parent, but says, we still need to separate because of danger.

    Yet, when we look at the government's reasons, we are seeing things like traffic offense, misdemeanor thefts, disorderly conduct.

    And the last point I want the stress is that we told the court from day one, if the child is genuinely in danger, or there is objective reason to believe the child is in danger, we, of course, want you to separate the parent and child.

    That's not what's going on. We have had independent experts look at these cases and say, at most, there's a handful of cases that might warrant further investigation, that, overwhelmingly, these are cases that should never even have been considered for separation.

    We don't separate a parent and child for — because the parent has a disorderly conduct offense in the past. Imagine how many American parents would lose their children if those are the kind of offenses that would warrant you losing your child.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But I want to pick up what you said there about a handful of cases, you say, based on the experts who have reviewed them think those could have been in the best interest of the child.

    And just overall, for some context, those 911 separations happened at the same time that over 430,000 people crossed the southern border. That's just for some context.

    Tell me, though, what we know about those children. How many of them are still in U.S. government custody? How many of them have been reunited with families? Do you know?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    We don't know.

    That's one of the troubling things. And I think that's one of the parts of this story that needs to be told, is that we are not getting the information. The service providers for the children are not getting the information. In many cases, the children's facilities are not getting the information. So we don't know how many have been reunified.

    We know that many have not, most have not, and some parents have even been deported without their children. So what we are going to be asking the court for is to clarify the standards by which you can separate a child and also that there be more information flow, because we need to know when these separations occur, where the parent is.

    Often, the child will be dumped into a facility, and the service providers won't even be told that the parent is in the U.S., much less the reason for the separation or where the child was placed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of questions still to be answered then.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Where the parent was placed. Excuse me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, thank you very much for being with us tonight.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thank you for having me.

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