Government Documents on Family Separation

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
Last modified: 
March 17, 2020
Tracking the Policy’s Evolution, Implementation, and Harm

Beginning in 2017, the U.S. government began publicly acknowledging plans to take children from their parents as a means of deterring migration to the United States from Mexico and Central America. Since that time, the government has separated thousands of families. 

The American Immigration Council pursued information about the government’s plans and practices for family separation in order to expose what happened. 

The Council obtained government records through Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA) filed in collaboration with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), and Women's Refugee Commission (WRC). The documents demonstrate that although the administration was aware that family separation would cause harmit nonetheless implemented the policy. Other documents reflect the actual harm family separation caused, the government’s deeply inept implementation of the flawed policy, and attempts to justify family separation in the face of mounting public criticism.  

While family separations were routinely reported throughout 2017, the practice officially went into effect in 2018 following the announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy. The zero tolerance policy referred to U.S. Attorney General Session’s instruction to prosecutors to prioritize the criminal prosecution of migrants who crossed the border without authorization—including those who tried to exercise their right to seek asylum. The government even effectuated this zero tolerance policy against families presenting themselves lawfully at a port of entry. Administration officials repeatedly insisted family separation was not a “policy” while systemically targeting families to prosecute parents and repeatedly acknowledging in public that the practice of separating families was intended to “deter” migration to the United States.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and other government employees took children from parents targeted for prosecution under zero tolerance. The separated children were then sent to detention facilities for unaccompanied migrant minors managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In many cases, children were sent to facilities thousands of miles away from their parents. 

ORR was overwhelmed by the volume of children and lacked information about the children’s parents, who were generally transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Separated families were lost in the system. While ORR officials attempted to identify sponsorfor children to facilitate release, complex vetting procedures newly implemented by ICE hampered this process. As a result, separated children—many of whom were under 5 years old—remained in government custody, suffering psychologically and emotionally while separated from parents for months.  

Documents uncovered by the Council’s FOIA demonstrate how ill-organized, harmful, and cruel the Trump administration’s efforts were in carrying out its policy of family separation, even after court orders required families be reunified. These records show the government agencies that participated in separating families had no plan in place to track children and their parents after separation, facilitate communication between parents and children, or develop reunification plans. The failure to develop a plan demonstrated the government’s lack of concern about keeping families intact. 

Evidence of Harm

The Council’s analysis of these documents exposes the range of harm that migrant children and families experienced as a result of the government’s reckless separation policies and practices. Prior to the Trump administration’s separation of families under zero tolerance, medical and mental health professionals cautioned that family separation caused trauma to children. Despite understanding the direct harm to children resulting from family separation, the Trump administration enacted a policy of family separation pursuant to zero tolerance and began to systematically separate children from their parents in 2018.  
Even the Department of Homeland Security’s oversight agency acknowledges the profound negative impacts of the practice. The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS OIG) issued a report detailing the scope and intensity of trauma suffered by separated children including the compounding effect of separating children with pre-existing trauma.  

Pre-existing Complex Trauma in Separated Migrant Children

Migrant children in the United States often live with pre-existing complex trauma that is exacerbated by the separation process. Through the family separation FOIA, the Council received records documenting trauma experienced by children prior to being separated from their parents. 


Significant Incident Reports Documenting Child Trauma Immediately Following Separation

The Council’s analysis of government documents received through the family separation FOIA reveal the harm children suffered when forcibly separated from parents and held in detention. Agency officials and contractors caring for separated children acknowledged the separations inflicted severe harm on children by filing “significant incident reports” (SIR). Significant incident reports are used by care providers to document incidents affecting a child’s health, well-being and safety.  
The basis for SIRs is noted in these records as “abuse while in government custody.” Below are examples from SIRs that document traumatic experiences immediately following the separation of children from their parents at the hands of CBP and upon admission into ORR care. 



Significant Incident Reports Documenting Trauma after Protracted Separation 

The complex trauma experienced by children is exacerbated by protracted separation. An HHS OIG Report discusses the extent to which children’s mental health generally deteriorated as a result of protracted custody and separation. Through the family separation FOIA, the Council secured documents illustrating how that deterioration presented in children subjected to protracted family separation.  



Government Inefficiencies 

The cruelty of family separation was exceeded only by the carelessness of its implementation. The government abjectly failed on three fronts: it did not set up a system for tracking separated families; it did not provide an effective method for parents and their children to communicate after separation; and it had no plan for ensuring families could be reunified prior to removal from the United States or to fight their immigration case.  
Through review of the family separation FOIA documents, the Council observed the extent to which the government incompetently executed family separation with disregard for the well-being of children and families.  

Failed System to Track Separated Families  

Family separation under zero-tolerance caught ORR program staff off-guard. Officials at ORR were unprepared for the abrupt increase of young children transferred into their care. ORR was unable to effectively track separated children’s cases.  
Through FOIA, the Council obtained documents demonstrating the extent of the chaos involved with locating and tracking separated children’s cases. In addition to an insufficient internal recording process, ORR used an excel spreadsheet with 63 pages of children's names and biographical data (3,109 cases total) to track the outcomes for the children subject to this cruel policy. 





















Failed Parent-Child Communication Policies

The government failed to coordinate contact between separated children and their missing parents. Communication is vital to minimize damage to the familial bond caused by separation.  
The Council and partners secured documents demonstrating that government officials never established proper procedures for connecting parents to their taken children. These findings expose the government’s false assertion that parents and children had (and have) regular communication. Failure to permit communication between parents and children further damaged the well-being of separated children. 





Failed Safety Checks for Parent-Child Reunification

In implementing zero tolerance in 2018, the government indicated it would refer for prosecution all migrants who crossed the border without authorization. The government maintained, as one of its justifications, family separation was necessary to protect children whose parents were referred for prosecution and transferred to U.S. Marshals Service custody. No prior administration had engaged in massive criminal prosecutions of adult parents crossing the border and contrary to the government’s position, it was not legally necessary to separate families because the parents were the subject of prosecution. 
Through FOIA, the Council and partners discovered that the government did not conduct thorough child safety assessments prior to reunifying children with their parents—even when the government originally stated safety concerns were the reason for separation.  












Government Justification for Family Separation  

Through FOIA, the Council and partners obtained policy guidance that shows the administration’s efforts to criminalize migrant families in order to make their policy objectives palatable.  
Citing concerns about child welfare and child victimization through smuggling and human trafficking, the administration attempted to shift the narrative around family separation. 
For example, in the months leading up to May 2017, the Trump administration took steps to develop an initiative to prosecute the parents of children who arrived alone to the United States, where the parent facilitated their arrival. This is one example of many efforts to falsely characterize the family members of unaccompanied children as “criminals” and justify prosecutions.  

The False Narrative that Family Separation would Protect Against Child Trafficking and Smugglers







Most Read

  • Publications
  • Blog Posts
  • Past:
  • Trending