Family Separation and the Detention of Immigrant Children

The Trump administration established a policy of separating families and detaining children of immigrants arrested while attempting to enter the United States. After strong opposition, the administration claimed to have ended the policy, but children have continued to be detained. American Oversight is investigating to uncover the truth about how the family separation policy was developed and implemented from the top down.
FAMILY SEPARATION TIMELINE

Documents we have obtained provide evidence of a pattern of miscommunication and disorganization within the Department of Homeland Security at the same time officials were issuing misleading public statements about the administration’s policies. We have compiled an extensive timeline of the administration’s communications about family separation, including both its public statements about the policy and internal discussions we uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act. View the timeline here.

En Español

Background

In the spring of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the United States would adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward people attempting to enter the country illegally, which included the separation of children from parents.

In April, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified to the House Appropriations Committee that the department’s policy was to keep families “together as long as operationally possible” and that “when we separate, we separate because the law tells us to.” Speaking to a group of law enforcement officials the next month, Sessions said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

As of mid-June 2018, the federal government had separated and detained more than 2,000 children, housing many of them in chain-link cages in temporary facilities set up along the border.

DHS detained children who arrived at the border, sometimes for far longer than the 72 hours allowed by law, then transferred the children to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which kept the children in “tent cities,” at least one of which remains operational.

Public outcry led to a June 2018 executive order in which President Trump officially ended the family-separation policy and instructed DHS to house children with their parents in existing facilities. In January 2019, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found that the number of separated children who were referred to the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement had increased significantly as early as the summer of 2017 — well before the announcement of the zero-tolerance policy. In April 2019, the government admitted in court documents that the process to reunite families could take up to two years. Meanwhile, news reports indicated that children were still being separated from their parents in 2019. The indefinite detention of minors violates the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which limits how long immigrant children can be detained.

American Oversight is seeking a broad range of records from the key agencies involved in the Trump administration’s policy of separating and detaining children of immigrants arrested at the border, from information about detention facility conditions to communications with Congress and information about the costs of implementing the policy.

Updates

News Roundup: Sham Audits and the Fruits of Disinformation

May 27, 2021
American Oversight's fight for transparency in the Arizona Senate's sham "audit" of ballots cast in Maricopa County continued this week, with the court on Thursday scheduling an oral argument for July 7 in our lawsuit seeking the release of planning documents and records of related communications.

American Oversight Sues for Records Related to ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy

April 29, 2021
The Department of Homeland Security implausibly claimed it had no records responsive to American Oversight’s FOIA requests for records or communications related to the creation or implementation of the dangerous policy.

News Roundup: The Big Lie Becomes Big Policy

March 25, 2021
The sheer number of voting-restriction bills currently floating in state legislatures makes it hard to keep track of where each proposal stands. But they all point to the fact that conservative leaders and fundraisers have increasingly adopted such restrictions as a primary policy position.

Chad Wolf’s Legacy of Loyalty to Trump

March 25, 2021
From his involvement in early discussions about the family separation policy to his participation in some of the former president’s most undemocratic actions, Wolf faces a number of questions about his role as acting DHS secretary.

Emails Reveal DOJ Official’s Close Working Relationship with Stephen Miller at Height of Family Separations

January 29, 2021
In January, the Justice Department inspector general released a damning report on the Trump administration’s family separation policy and the involvement of top agency officials.

New Details About the Work of Former DHS Official Who Left Administration Because of White Nationalist Ties

December 15, 2020
According to documents American Oversight obtained, Ian M. Smith worked on immigration issues, including budgetary matters surrounding separated children and deportation relief for Guatemalans in the U.S.

New Documents Provide Further Details of Stephen Miller’s Influence on Immigration Policy

November 30, 2020
As the Trump administration enters its final months, American Oversight is committed to holding officials like Stephen Miller accountable for the policies they pushed.

Open Questions About Trump Administration Policies

October 29, 2020
The tragically botched pandemic response and devastating practice of separating immigrant families are just some of the Trump administration’s actions that bear further scrutiny.

Investigations Update: Family Separation, Unmarked Law Enforcement, and Trump’s Campaign Rallies

June 30, 2020
Here’s a look at the investigations our team has been pursuing through public records requests and Freedom of Information Act litigation in the last week.

American Oversight Sues ICE for Family-Separation Memos

June 24, 2020
Our investigation into the Trump administration’s family-separation policy has uncovered evidence of chaos, confusion, and obfuscation surrounding the policy's planning and implementation.

News Roundup: The Subversion of Justice at the Justice Department

May 15, 2020
From investigations into the president’s perceived enemies to interference in the criminal cases of Trump allies like Flynn and Roger Stone, the ongoing politicization of the department is a dangerous threat to the rule of law.

Chaos, Confusion and Obfuscation at DHS Around Family Separation

May 12, 2020
Documents obtained by American Oversight provide further evidence of miscommunication and disorganization at the same time officials were issuing misleading public statements.

News Roundup: Transparency and Oversight Are More Important Than Ever

March 27, 2020
During ordinary times, government transparency maintains a functioning democracy. But during the coronavirus outbreak, it can also save lives.

Three Years of American Oversight

March 19, 2020
These are anxious and uncertain times. But as American Oversight marks its third anniversary, our work to expose corruption, self-dealing and other misconduct continues.

News Roundup: Hear No Evil, See No Evil

January 31, 2020
The White House’s stonewall is crumbling, the truth will come out, and votes to prematurely end the Senate’s impeachment trial will look increasingly worse.

News Roundup: Ukraine-Related Documents, Hurdles for Asylum-Seekers, and Chad Wolf’s Involvement in Family Separation

November 8, 2019
The latest on impeachment and on our investigations into the administration's immigration policies.

Early Trump Administration — and McAleenan — Communications About Immigration Policy

October 9, 2019
Only so much distance can be created between McAleenan and his direct involvement in some of the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies.

News Roundup: Photos of Detention Centers for Migrant Children; Stephen Miller’s Hand in Immigration Policy

September 13, 2019
Investigating the Trump administration's harsh immigration restrictions, Jared Kushner's role in Middle East policy, and influence and access at DeVos' Education Department.

Photos from Inside Detention Centers for Migrant Children

September 8, 2019
American Oversight has obtained hundreds of photos that shed more light on the conditions inside detention centers for unaccompanied migrant children.

News Roundup: Remain in Mexico’s Harmful Effects and Trump’s Dangerous Impatience

August 30, 2019
Immigration officials frequently don't offer language assistance to asylum-seekers forced to return to Mexico, and Trump's rush for a border wall before 2020 raises concerns.

News Roundup: More Troops at the Border Means More Questions for the Administration

February 1, 2019
The day after a congressional hearing about military presence at the southern border, the Pentagon announced it will be deploying another 2,000 troops.

News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

January 11, 2019
American Oversight is investigating the administration's use of inflated crime statistics and false claims to bolster Trump's demand for a border wall.

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

December 5, 2018
On Tuesday, American Oversight filed multiple lawsuits regarding the development and implementation of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.

American Oversight Demands Records of Trump Family Separation Policy

June 20, 2018
American Oversight today launched a broad investigation into the Trump administration's policy of separating families and detaining children of immigrants arrested while attempting to enter the United States.
Show all updates

Related Documents

May 3, 2021

DHS Records of Select Hearings in 2018

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
December 15, 2020

DHS Records Relating to Family Separation from 2017 to 2019

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
December 7, 2020

CBP Data and Communications on Apprehensions and Custody from January to March 2017

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Agency Record
November 9, 2020

No Records Response from ACF Regarding Communications about Cost of Family Separation

Department of Health and Human Services
Agency Reply
October 9, 2020

ACF Communications About Vaccination Information Protocols for Children Detained in Detention Centers

Department of Health and Human Services
Agency Record
October 9, 2020

No Records Response from ACF Regarding Directives on Deporting Unaccompanied Minors

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
Agency Reply
October 5, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Directives Regarding Children Deported Without Guardians

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request
October 5, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications Containing Key Terms Related to Children Deported Without Guardians

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
October 5, 2020

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications Containing Key Terms Related to Children Deported Without Guardians

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
October 5, 2020

FOIA to OLC Seeking Legal Analysis Regarding Children Deported Without Guardians

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request
October 2, 2020

DHS Records Relating to Family Separation Hearings from February to May 2019

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
September 17, 2020

CBP Records Related to the Migration Crisis Action Team

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Agency Record
August 19, 2020

CBP Records in Response to Request for Kevin McAleenan Communications Concerning Kirstjen Nielsen

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Agency Record
August 17, 2020

Withheld Records Response from DHS Regarding Family Separation and Communications with Anti-Immigration Activists

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Agency Reply
August 12, 2020

HHS Photographs of Conditions in Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Minors

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
Agency Record
August 10, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications Containing Key Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
August 10, 2020

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications Containing Key Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
August 10, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Calendars of Key Officials Involved in Family-Separation Policy

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
August 10, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Directives Regarding Family-Separation Policy

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
August 10, 2020

FOIA to HHS Seeking Directives Regarding Family-Separation Policy

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
August 7, 2020

DOJ Records of Communications with External Anti-Immigrant Groups Containing Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Justice
Agency Record
July 23, 2020

No Records Response from OMB Regarding “Zero Tolerance” Policy for Border Crossings

White House - Office of Management and Budget
Agency Reply
July 6, 2020

DHS Records About Migrant Caravan from April 2018

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
June 24, 2020

American Oversight v. DHS and ICE – Requested Memos on Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Litigation
June 24, 2020

American Oversight v. DHS and ICE – Requested Memos on Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
May 31, 2020

DOJ Records Concerning Immigration-Related Court Cases from 2017

Department of Justice
Agency Record
May 15, 2020

CRCL Email Communications with the US Commission on Civil Rights Regarding Family Separation from 2018

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
May 14, 2020

DHS Transcript of James McHenry’s Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony on Family Reunification in July 2018

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
May 13, 2020

HHS Records Regarding the Budget for Fiscal Year 2019

Department of Health and Human Services
Agency Record
March 24, 2020

FOIA to ICE Seeking Memos on Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
FOIA Request
March 23, 2020

FOIA to ICE Seeking Compiled Memos on Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
FOIA Request
January 15, 2020

DHS Records Regarding Communications with Outside Anti-Immigrant Groups

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
December 19, 2019

FOIA to DHS Regarding Videos Shown at Border Patrol Facilities

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
December 19, 2019

FOIA to CBP Regarding Videos Shown at Border Patrol Facilities

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
December 19, 2019

FOIA to ORR Regarding Videos Shown at Border Patrol Facilities

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
December 19, 2019

FOIA to ICE Regarding Videos Shown at Border Protection Facilities

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
December 16, 2019

NRR from OMB Regarding the Costs of Family Separation

White House - Office of Management and Budget
Agency Reply
November 13, 2019

DHS Correspondence Related to Family Separation and Testimony from 2018

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
October 11, 2019

DOJ Records Regarding Communications with Anti-Immigration Groups About Family Separation

Department of State
Agency Record
August 21, 2019

FOIA to DHS Seeking Photos of the El Paso Processing Center

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
August 8, 2019

FOIA to CBP for Reports Produced by Migration Crisis Action Team

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
July 15, 2019

HHS Records Regarding DNA Testing Of Separated Families

Department of Health and Human Services
Agency Record
July 12, 2019

No Records Response from the Justice Management Division Regarding Family Separation Costs

Department of Justice
Agency Reply
July 11, 2019

DHS Records Regarding Family Separation and Communications with Anti-Immigration Activists

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
July 3, 2019

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications Containing Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 28, 2019

DHS Photographs of CBP’s Central Processing Station “Ursula” in McAllen, Texas

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Agency Record
June 27, 2019

FOIA to CBP for Communications of Kevin McAleenan Containing Key Terms Related to Misrepresentation of Former Secretary Nielsen

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

Complaint: American Oversight v. DHS, ICE, and CBP – Treatment of Detainees

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Litigation
June 14, 2019

HHS Photographs of Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Minors 

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Office of the Inspector General
Agency Record
May 9, 2019

USCIS Records of Communications Regarding Family Separation

DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Agency Record
April 30, 2019

OMB Records Regarding the Cost of Family Separations

White House - Office of Management and Budget
Agency Record
April 30, 2019

No Records Response from DHS Asking for Communications On the Impact of the “Zero Tolerance Policy” on Children’s Health

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Reply
March 25, 2019

FOIA to HHS Seeking Records Regarding Warnings About the Harmful Impact of Family Separation on Children

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
March 25, 2019

FOIA to DHS Seeking Records Regarding Warnings About the Harmful Impact of Family Separation on Children

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
March 25, 2019

FOIA to DHS for Analysis of Psychological Effects of Family Separation on Children

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
March 19, 2019

No Records Response from USMS Regarding Costs of the Family Separation Policy

Department of Justice
Agency Reply
March 19, 2019

No Records Response from USMS Regarding Communications Related to the Family Separation Policy

Department of Justice
Agency Reply
March 13, 2019

HHS Records of Capacity Report Spreadsheets

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
Agency Record
February 7, 2019

No Records Response from Department of Defense Regarding Talking Points for Secretary Mattis

Department of Defense
Agency Reply
December 18, 2018

FOIA to DOD Seeking Records Related to Use of Tear Gas at the Border

Department of Defense
FOIA Request
December 18, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications with San Ysidro Directors

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
December 4, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. DHS – Family Separation Policy Communications

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Litigation
December 4, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. HHS – Family Separation Policy

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS Office of the Inspector General
Litigation
December 4, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. Multiple Entities – Family Separation Policy Costs

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, DOJ - U.S. Marshals Service, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, White House - Office of Management and Budget
Litigation
December 4, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. DOJ – Family Separation Policy Communications

Department of Justice
Litigation
December 4, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. Multiple Entities – Sessions Memo Communications

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Litigation
November 16, 2018

FOIA to HHS Seeking Communications Containing the Term Matching Table

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
November 16, 2018

FOIA to HHS Seeking Records Related to a Database to Track Separated Children

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
October 31, 2018

No Records Response from ICE regarding guidance for implementing DOJ’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Reply
October 19, 2018

No Records Response From EOIR On Family Separation Costs

DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review
Agency Reply
October 18, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Records Related to the Migration Crisis Action Team

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Migration Crisis Action Team Communications

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to HHS and ACF Regarding DNA Testing to Reunite Families

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications with Outside Anti-Immigrant Groups Containing Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Communications with Outside Anti-Immigrant Groups Containing Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to HHS Office of the Inspector General Regarding Reports of Abuse at a Virginia Detention Center for Unaccompanied Minors

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

FOIA to ACF Regarding Conditions in Detention Centers for Unaccompanied Minors

HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request
October 18, 2018

No Records Response from DHS on Costs of Family Separation Policy

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Reply
October 17, 2018

FOIA to the Peace Corps Seeking Steve Dillingham Communications with Outside Entities

Peace Corps
FOIA Request
October 12, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Communications Regarding Funds for DOJ’s Family Separation Policy

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
October 4, 2018

No Records Response from DOL Regarding Ballard Partners

Department of Labor
Agency Reply
October 2, 2018

FOIA to Multiple Entities Seeking Records Related to the Funding of the Administration’s Family Separation Policy

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - U.S. Marshals Service, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, White House - Office of Management and Budget
FOIA Request
October 2, 2018

FOIA to Multiple Entities Seeking Records Related to the Administration’s Family Separation Policy

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, DOJ - U.S. Marshals Service, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, White House - Office of Management and Budget
FOIA Request
September 7, 2018

DOJ Records on Legality of the Family Separation Executive Order

Department of Justice
Agency Record
August 13, 2018

FOIA to DOL Seeking Communications with Ballard Partners

Department of Labor
FOIA Request
August 13, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Regarding Ballard Partners and Bradley Arant Boult Cummings

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
August 13, 2018

FOIA to DHS/USCIS Seeking Communications with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
FOIA Request
August 13, 2018

FOIA to ICE Seeking Communications with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
FOIA Request
August 13, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
August 13, 2018

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Records of Legal Advice Regarding Family Separation Executive Order

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Form and Legality Memo for Family Separation Executive Order

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to ACF Seeking Emails about Sen. Merkley Visit to Detention Facility

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to ACF Seeking Capacity Update Report Spreadsheets

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to ACF Seeking Emails Regarding DHS Secretary Nielsen’s Testimony About Family Separation

Department of Health and Human Services
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Communications with Anti-Immigration Groups about Family Separation

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Communications About Family Separation Policy

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Emails Regarding DHS Secretary Nielsen’s Testimony About Family Separation

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications About Family Separations at San Ysidro and Hidalgo Ports of Entry

DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DHS, ICE, CBP and USCIS Seeking Communications with Anti-Immigration Groups about Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DHS, ICE, CBP and USCIS Seeking Communications Regarding Family Separation or Sen. Merkley Visit to Detention Facility

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DHS, ICE, CBP and USCIS Seeking Emails Regarding Zero Tolerance Policy and Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to CBP and ICE Seeking Guidance on Implementation of Zero Tolerance Policy

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DHS, ICE, CBP and USCIS Seeking Emails Regarding DHS Secretary Nielsen’s Testimony About Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
June 20, 2018

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications of Secretary Nielsen or Senior Officials Regarding Testimony about Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request