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Trump showed no regret over family separations during the presidential debate

Separating families was one of Trump’s cruelest immigration policies.

President Donald Trump during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

During Thursday night’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump was asked to answer for the 545 migrant children who may never see their parents again after his administration separated them from their families at the US-Mexico border.

But the president instead took the opportunity to air his xenophobic views of immigrants, falsely claiming that the affected children were brought to the US by smugglers known as “coyotes,” cartels, gangs and “lots of bad people.” He also argued that the Obama administration built the cages that his administration later used to take the children into immigration custody, and claimed that the children were treated well while in those facilities.

“They are so well taken care of,” he said. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.”

All of the 545 children, who are now party to a lawsuit in federal court, came to the US with their parents. Many of them have been separated from their parents since 2017, before the Trump administration began separating immigrant families routinely, hoping to deter immigrants from crossing the border without authorization.

The conditions under which the children were held drew widespread condemnation in 2018. Some were placed in US Customs and Border Protection holding cells that got so cold that they were called “hieleras” — Spanish for “freezer” — where they slept on concrete floors with nothing but thin Mylar blankets to keep them warm. They often lacked basic hygiene products, including soap and toothbrushes, and were not provided regular meals and snacks as required by agency guidelines.

“It makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” Biden said of the policy on Thursday. “It’s criminal.”

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union said that they still cannot find the parents of 283 children despite thorough on-the-ground searches in Central America, and don’t expect to be able to reach them by telephone, meaning that the families may never be reunited.

The children have been released to sponsors, who are typically family members or friends, but also include foster families. Their parents, two-thirds of whom were deported before a federal judge ordered that they be identified and reunited with their children in 2018, either have not been located or have not been successfully contacted. The group Justice in Motion is continuing to work to locate the parents in Mexico and Central America, though that has become more difficult amid the pandemic.

Trump offered no plan to help reunite the families on Thursday.

The US government had a policy of separating families — despite officials’ denials

Beginning in mid-2017, the federal government ran a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, under which it began filing criminal charges against anyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents with minor children — even though many of them intended to seek asylum in the US, which is legal.

Parents were sent to immigration detention to await deportation proceedings. Their children, meanwhile, were sent to separate facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and, in some cases, released to other family members in the US or to foster homes. (Previous administrations, in most cases, would have simply released the families from detention.)

The Trump administration formalized the policy in May 2018, which it dubbed the “zero tolerance policy.” At least 5,000 families were separated before a California federal court ordered the federal government in June 2018 to reunify the families affected and end the policy.

The federal government, however, neglected to link the children to their parents in its databases, making the reunification process difficult, especially in the hundreds of cases of children who were under the age of 5, including one who was just 4 months old.

Unlike the Trump administration, the Obama administration did not have a policy of separating families, but it did try to detain families together on a wide scale and deport them as quickly as possible during the 2014 migrant crisis. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council, told the New York Times in 2018 that the administration had briefly considered pursuing family separations but quickly dropped the idea.

“We spent five minutes thinking it through and concluded that it was a bad idea,” she told the Times. “The morality of it was clear — that’s not who we are.”

Senior Trump administration officials, including former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have repeatedly denied that they pursued a policy of family separation. Nielsen told Congress in December 2018 that the administration “never had a policy for family separation.” It was later revealed that she had, in fact, signed a memo greenlighting the practice, which clearly stated that DHS could “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.”

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the administration has tried to carry out what immigrant advocates call a new kind of family separation. It pressured parents already detained within the US to voluntarily separate from their children by presenting them with what the administration has called a “binary choice”: Either allow their children to be placed with relatives or a foster family in the US while the parents remain detained, or stay together as a family in indefinite detention and risk contracting the coronavirus.

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