A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Trump Reverses on Family Separation Policy

June 20, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Responding to mounting public pushback, President Donald Trump reversed course and signed an executive order Wednesday to end his administration’s policy of separating families detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though he had strenuously defended the policy, the President said Wednesday he “didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” and under the new order, parents and their children could remain together in federal custody indefinitely while waiting to be prosecuted for illegally crossing the border. The new order does not put an end to the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy which was created to prosecute all illegal border crossings.

At a shelter for immigrant families in the border town of McAllen, Texas on Wednesday, Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told FRONTLINE she welcomed the decision, but said it was unclear what the consequences would be for the many families who’d already been separated.

“They don’t know when they are going to see their parents,” she told FRONTLINE Correspondent Martin Smith, who along with Producer Marcela Gaviria is there reporting for an upcoming documentary. 

As news of the order reached Texas, a Border Patrol spokesman told the FRONTLINE team that operations had already been suspended Wednesday due to weather, and they were awaiting instructions from Washington on how to proceed.

Since the Trump administration enacted its “zero tolerance” policy in April, over 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the border, with more than 100 under the age of 4.

“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said at a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona announcing the policy. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Over the last couple weeks, images and audio of Central American children crying after being separated from their families have generated widespread condemnation, by lawmakers from both parties, human rights organizations and across social media. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, released a statement on Tuesday criticizing the separation policy. “All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers,” it said. “This must stop. Now.” 

Republican lawmakers had pledged to address the separation policy in a vote on immigration legislation this week, and earlier on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan had voiced support for passing legislation to end the separations. Until Wednesday, the President and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had both said that legislation was the only way to stop the separations.

The new executive order, which seeks to find or build facilities to keep families together, still conflicts with the 1997 Flores settlement, a consent decree that prohibits the federal government from detaining children in immigration detention for more than 20 days — with or without their parents. It is unclear how that conflict will be resolved.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement Wednesday saying that the executive order does not grant sufficient protection to detained immigrant children.

“This executive order would replace one crisis for another,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Children don’t belong in jail at all, even with their parents, under any set of circumstances. If the president thinks placing families in jail indefinitely is what people have been asking for, he is grossly mistaken.”

—Anjali Tsui contributed reporting from McAllen, Texas.

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