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: Separación Familiar y la Detención de los Niños Inmigrantes

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.

El Contexto

En la primavera de 2018, el Fiscal General Jeff Sessions anunció que los Estados Unidos adoptaría una política de tolerancia cero para personas que tratan de entrar al país ilegalmente, cuya política incluye la separación de niños de sus padres. 

En abril, la Secretaría de Seguridad Nacional Kirstjen Nielsen testificó frente el Comité de Asignaciones de la Cámara de Representantes que la política del departamento era mantener a familias “unidas hasta ser lo más posiblemente operativo,” y “cuando separamos, separamos porque la ley nos indica a separar.” Hablando el próximo mes con un grupo de oficiales de orden público, Sessions dijó, “Si estás traficando un niño, te aplicaremos todo el peso de la ley y el niño será separado de ti de acuerdo con la ley.”

A mediados de junio de 2018, el gobierno federal había separado y detenido más de 2,000 niños, albergando muchos de ellos en jaulas de alambre en facilidades a lo largo de la frontera. 

DHS detuvo a niños que llegaron a la frontera, algunas veces por más de las 72 horas permitidas por ley, y después fueron trasladados a la custodia del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Sociales, quien mantuvo a los niños en “ciudades de carpas.”

Las protestas públicas resultan en una orden ejecutiva en junio de 2018 en la que Presidente Trump oficialmente terminó la política de separación familiar e instruye a DHS a albergar a los niños con sus padres en facilidades existentes. En enero de 2019, el general inspector del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Sociales encontró que el número de niños separados quien han remitido a la Oficina de Reasentamiento de Refugiados ha subido considerablemente desde el verano de 2017 — mucho antes del anuncio de la política de cero tolerancia. En abril 2019, el gobierno confesó en documentos legales que el proceso para reunificar familias puede demorar hasta dos años. Mientras tanto los informes de noticias indican que los niños todavía están siendo separados de sus padres en 2019. La detención indefinida de menores viola el 1997 Acuerdo Judicial Flores, que limita cuánto tiempo los niños de inmigrantes pueden ser detenidos. 

American Oversight está buscando una amplia gama de archivos de las agencias claves que están involucradas en la política de la separación y detención de los niños de inmigrantes detenidos en la frontera, incluyendo información sobre las condiciones en los centros de detención, comunicaciones con el Congreso, e información sobre los costos de la implementación de esta política. 

Updates

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.
Show all updates

Related Documents

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

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

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October 5, 2020

FOIA to OLC Seeking Legal Analysis Regarding Children Deported Without Guardians

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request
September 17, 2020

CBP Records Related to the Migration Crisis Action Team

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Agency Record
August 10, 2020

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

Department of Homeland Security
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August 10, 2020

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

Department of Homeland Security
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August 10, 2020

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

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August 10, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Directives Regarding Family-Separation Policy

Department of Homeland Security
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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 28, 2020

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

Department of Health and Human Services
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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
June 15, 2020

DHS Records Relating to Family Separation from 2017 to 2019

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
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
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
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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 23, 2019

HHS Records Regarding the Budget for Fiscal Year 2019

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October 11, 2019

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

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FOIA to DHS Seeking Photos of the El Paso Processing Center

Department of Homeland Security
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August 8, 2019

FOIA to CBP for Reports Produced by Migration Crisis Action Team

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July 15, 2019

HHS Records Regarding DNA Testing Of Separated Families

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July 12, 2019

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

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July 11, 2019

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

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July 3, 2019

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications Containing Terms Related to Family Separation

Department of Homeland Security
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June 28, 2019

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

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June 27, 2019

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

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

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June 24, 2019

HHS Photographs of Conditions in Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Minors

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June 14, 2019

HHS Photographs of Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Minors 

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

USCIS Records of Communications Regarding Family Separation

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April 30, 2019

OMB Records Regarding the Cost of Family Separations

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April 30, 2019

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March 25, 2019

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March 25, 2019

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

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March 25, 2019

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March 19, 2019

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

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March 13, 2019

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December 18, 2018

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December 18, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Communications with San Ysidro Directors

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

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Complaint: American Oversight v. HHS – Family Separation Policy

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December 4, 2018

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

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November 16, 2018

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October 19, 2018

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October 18, 2018

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October 18, 2018

FOIA to CBP Seeking Migration Crisis Action Team Communications

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October 18, 2018

FOIA to HHS and ACF Regarding DNA Testing to Reunite Families

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October 18, 2018

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

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October 18, 2018

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

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October 18, 2018

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October 18, 2018

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October 18, 2018

No Records Response from DHS on Costs of Family Separation Policy

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Agency Reply
October 17, 2018

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October 12, 2018

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Department of Justice
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October 4, 2018

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October 2, 2018

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October 2, 2018

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

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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