With Renewed Attention on the Border, These 8 Documentaries Illuminate U.S. Immigration Policies Involving Kids

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions an unaccompanied minor after a group of asylum seekers crossed the Rio Grande into Texas on March 25, 2021. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions an unaccompanied minor after a group of asylum seekers crossed the Rio Grande into Texas on March 25, 2021. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

March 31, 2021

April 8, 2021, update: U.S. authorities took almost 19,000 unaccompanied minors into custody in March, the largest monthly number on record.

With an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency, the country’s laws and protocols surrounding the treatment of these minors are once again in the spotlight.

While the U.S. typically sees an increase in migration in the spring months, “We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement earlier this month.

Beyond seasonality, experts have also attributed this year’s increase to factors including a rebound from 2020, when the Trump administration’s border closures and expulsion policies following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. The Biden administration said in February that it would stop the Trump administration’s pandemic-era practice of expelling unaccompanied minors.

In keeping with that statement, Mayorkas specified that the government was expelling “most single adults and families” but not unaccompanied children, citing their vulnerability. “Border Patrol facilities have become crowded with children and the 72-hour timeframe for the transfer of children from the Border Patrol to [the Department of Health and Human Services] is not always met,” Mayorkas went on to say in the statement. “HHS has not had the capacity to intake the number of unaccompanied children we have been encountering.”

During its tenure, the Trump administration implemented policies that resulted in the separation of families at the border, effectively closing the border during the pandemic and denying minors the opportunity to seek asylum. The Biden administration has said it inherited a system in disarray and is working to come up with humane solutions and to address the root causes of migration. Mayorkas has described the border as “closed” and encouraged unaccompanied minors not to come now.

In recent weeks, senators from both parties had pressed the Biden administration to provide media access to overcrowded Border Patrol facilities holding detained children. Media photos and video from inside a Customs and Border Patrol facility in Texas began to circulate Tuesday, following a press conference last week in which Biden said his administration was working to “rebuild the system that can accommodate the — what is happening today.”

“As I have said repeatedly, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” Mayorkas said in a new statement Tuesday. “We have been working around the clock, in coordination with HHS, to quickly move unaccompanied children out of these crowded Border Patrol stations and into the care of HHS so they can be placed with family members or other sponsors.”

Early government data for March put the U.S. on pace to take into custody a record number of unaccompanied minors, more than 17,000 this month, according to The Washington Post.

FRONTLINE has been chronicling the impact of U.S. immigration policies on young and vulnerable people for years and across presidencies. For context on the current moment, including the driving forces behind past increases in migration to the U.S., revisit these eight documentaries. Taken together, they illuminate aspects of a complex, often conflicting immigration system and how it impacts children and families who leave their countries for a host of economic, violence-related and environmental reasons.

Targeting El Paso (2020)

How El Paso, Texas, became a testing ground for some of President Donald Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, a subject of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, the site of an increased number of migrant families crossing the border — and the target of a white supremacist with an assault rifle. The film included a rare interview with a border patrol agent about separating families (he called it “the most horrible thing I’ve ever done”), and the first known media interview with a child held at the notorious Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas.

Kids Caught in the Crackdown (2019)

As the number of detained migrant children reached a record high in 2019 following the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and its resulting family separations, FRONTLINE and The Associated Press investigated what was going on inside federally funded shelters — and the lasting impact of prolonged detention on children held in U.S. custody.

Zero Tolerance (2019)

An investigation into the behind-the-scenes efforts of three anti-immigration hardliners — Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon — who helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency and were instrumental in shaping policies that separated families and stripped immigrants of their ability to seek asylum in an effort to curtail immigration. FRONTLINE examined how Trump, who compared immigrants to snakes on the campaign trail, came to wield anti-immigration fervor as a potent political tool.

Separated: Children at the Border (2018)

Inside the origins and impact of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy mandating that adults who enter the country unlawfully be criminally prosecuted and separated from the children they brought with them. This FRONTLINE documentary was among the first media reports to find that separations were happening to families who crossed the border illegally, months before the “zero tolerance” policy was officially announced. It also traced the Obama administration’s handling of minors at the border — including the federal response to a 2014 increase in crossings by minors and young families fleeing violence in Central America that took officials by surprise.

The Gang Crackdown (2018)

In the wake of a slew of gruesome killings linked to the gang MS-13, FRONTLINE investigated how efforts by law enforcement and the Trump administration to stop the violent international gang led to many immigrant teens being accused of gang affiliation and unlawfully detained.

Trafficked in America (2018)

The inside story of Guatemalan immigrant teens who were forced to work against their will on an Ohio egg farm in 2014. A collaboration between FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, the film examined the Obama administration’s failure to protect unaccompanied minors from abuses, such as labor trafficking.

Immigration Battle (2015)

A two-hour special presentation with Independent Lens taking viewers behind the scenes to Washington’s corridors of power and exploring the political battles surrounding immigration, one of the country’s most pressing and divisive issues.

Lost in Detention (2011)

With the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a look at the soaring number of immigrant deportations and detentions under the Obama administration. The documentary investigated complaints of abuse and harsh treatment — including charges that families were being unfairly separated after being caught in the administration’s nationwide dragnet.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE


Daffodil Altan

Daffodil Altan, Producer & Correspondent, FRONTLINE



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