Text messages were coming in all day and night. Gender and age and with each one that arrived, the on-call caseworker at Bethany Christian Services in Michigan had 15 minutes to get a foster home for another child who was en route from the border.
And in the winter of February 2018, Alma Acevedo got a message that caught her breath with a text message saying: “4 months. Boy”.
Since the summer of 2017, the 24-year-old social worker had been seeing a mysterious surge of children arriving from the border, most of them from Central America.
Those who were old enough to talk said they’d been separated from their parents, and the kids were just inconsolable, they’d be like, “Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy”. And Ms Acevedo said it was just constant sobbing after that.
None of them had been this young, and few had come this far, and when he reached her office after midnight, brought by two contract workers, the child was stunning, with long, curved eyelashes framing his dark brown eyes.
His legs and arms were plump, seeming to indicate that he’d been cared for by someone, so why was he in Michigan?
Ms Acevedo went to her workstation and pulled up the only record that might help solve that question, a birth certificate from Romania naming the baby, Constantin Mutu, and his parents, Vasile and Florentina.
She searched a Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency database that revealed the baby’s father was in federal custody in Pearsall, Texas.
Constantin was presently the youngest of thousands of babies taken from their parents under a system that was meant to discourage families hoping to immigrate to the United States.
It started almost a year before the administration would acknowledge it publicly in May 2018, and the total number of those affected is still unknown and the Government still hasn’t told the Mutus family why their son was taken from them, and officials from the Department of Homeland Security refused to comment.
In Constantin’s case, it would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention centre because he couldn’t stop crying and his mother was hospitalised with hypertension from stress.
Constantin was sent to live with a middle-class American family in their tri-level house on a tree-lined street in rural Michigan, and then be sent home, and now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own and has not spoken.
The vast majority of families who flowed across the border from Mexico came from Central America, fleeing poverty, drought and violence but the Mutus family came from much further away, Romania, where a small but constant number of asylum seekers were escaping ethnic oppression and made their way to the United States.
And as children growing up in their small hillside village, Vasile and Florentina Mutu helped their parents plead for money for food.
They’re members of the Roma minority group, which originated in India.
In Romania, the Roma were enslaved for more than 500 years and brutal attacks against them continue throughout Europe, with the exclusion from schools, jobs and social services is commonplace, and human rights groups have documented the practice of forced sterilisations.
A decade or so ago, as the Mutus family recall, the first Roma family from their village announced that they were leaving for the United States and word made its way back that the family had found great success and that their children had learned to speak impeccable English, and that they’d become wealthy, although it wasn’t clear how.
Over the years, more than a dozen other families followed, including Florentina’s older brother, who left with his wife and three children. He had posted photos on Facebook of palm trees, luxury car dealerships and American cash.
By the time their fifth child was born, the Mutus family had settled into a system where they raised funds elsewhere in Europe, begging and doing menial work, then went back for a few weeks at a time to Romania, where the money stretched further.
They had the occasional run-ins with the police and once Mr Mutu said, he was arrested for stealing cable from a construction site.
Though most of their children had been born at home, Constantin had to be delivered by C-section. Vasile sold two pigs and a cow to pay a doctor to do the procedure, and in a haze of pain, while she was in labour, Florentina signed documents that she couldn’t read.
When she returned to the hospital for an appointment to check her recovery, a hospital employee told her that the doctor had also performed a tubal ligation, but she and her husband had intended to have more children, as is traditional in their culture, they were devastated.
Soon after, in between the middle of the night feeding of Constantin and while the rest of their children slept, Vasile and Florentina formed a plan that they would try and seek refuge in the United States with their two youngest children and send for the others when they settled.
Within weeks, the Mutus family had sold their home to pay a man who would arrange to get them into America through Mexico.
Florentina packed a case with diapers, a change of clothes for each of them, holy oil and dried basil, a Romanian good luck charm but on the plane, Constantin started to run a fever.
Mexico City was a storm of confusion and noise. They couldn’t understand the voices or signs in Spanish. Beggars pounded on the window to their taxi to ask for money, though they had done the same themselves in Europe, in Mexico it somehow seemed scarier.
They met a smuggler who led them to a packed bus headed for the border.
The Mutus family found seats out of sight from one another, and for the next several hours, took turns in caring for Nicolas, their 4-year-old, and Constantin, who was getting hotter.
Mr Mutu had settled into the last leg of the journey on the bus when Constantin began sobbing on his lap. Mr Mutu stood up, shimmying towards the back of the bus to get a bottle when he spotted the seats where his wife and son had been sitting were now empty.
Mr Mutu looked around frantically and pulled out his phone to call his wife, but he’d spent their minutes by making calls back to Romania to check in with his other children.
Uncertain of what else to do, he paid a cab driver to take him and Constantin to the footbridge into the United States, believing that he could call his wife when they reached the other side.
It was dark outside when he reached an immigration officer stationed outside the American border. He told the officer that he wanted political asylum and was taken in to be questioned with the aid of an interpreter on the telephone.
Mr Mutu explained that he had lost his wife and son and that they were fleeing persecution in Romania, but a handful of officers entered the room, they took Constantin, put him on a chair and chained Mr Mutu’s hands and feet.
He said that the police wiped the floor with him through a translator and was then dragged out of the room while Constantin stayed behind with some of the officers.
He said that he started crying because he didn’t know what to do and he couldn’t speak any English, and he couldn’t understand why they were doing this to him.
Florentina Mutu was still at the bus stop with Nicolas, sobbing on a bench since she had discovered that the bus had pulled away without her when she got a call from her mother.
Border officials had reached her mother in Romania and explained that she would also be arrested if she crossed the border and her family promptly scraped together money to get them home.
Constantin was put with a foster family in Michigan while Ms Acevedo worked to connect with his parents.
She got a telephone number for his mother in Romania and made a video call during what was the middle of the night there.
An unkempt woman answered, sitting in darkness, looking like she’d just been woken up.
She spoke frantically, but Ms Acevedo couldn’t understand, so she pulled up Google Translate on her computer and typed a message about Constantin in English, which she then played in Romanian.
Florentina Mutu began to sob and she reciprocated her full maiden name, which was recorded on Constantin’s birth certificate. She said it like 20 times, she said Florentina Ramona Patu and Ms Acevedo said, “Yes, yes, yes”.
Ms Avedo just wanted Florentina to know that her son was somewhere and that he wasn’t misplaced or had disappeared and she wanted her to know that he was with somebody.
Ms Acevedo began making weekly video calls between Constantin and his mother, propping the baby up on the sofa. Ms Mutu would often cry as she chatted frantically to him in Romanian.
Vasile Mutu was still in detention and falling deeper into depression. He couldn’t sleep and refused most of the food that he was given.
Occasionally he was given documents in English or Spanish, which he couldn’t understand and he cried so much that his cellmates began beating him to make him quiet and he thought about committing suicide because no one was telling him anything, they just kept telling him to wait and wait.
Two months into his detention, an immigration officer came to Mr Mutu with an offer. As he understood it, if he gave up his claim for asylum, he would be deported back to Romania with Constantin. He accepted, and on June 3, 2018, he was freed from his cell and loaded into a van.
He looked everywhere for Constantin and asked the officers where his son was but was not given a precise explanation.
At the airport, he refused to leave without the baby and immigration officers told him that Constantin would be returned to him once he had taken his seat, but the plane lifted off and the baby never came.
When Mr Mutu arrived home, it felt more like walking into a funeral than a celebration.
Months dragged on while Mr Mutu waited for his day in immigration court and Constantin fell into a routine with his foster family, in their cosy brick house on a hilly road in rural Michigan.
The family, which had begun fostering immigrant children a year earlier following a life-changing experience doing missionary work in Ethiopia, requested not to be named because it would infringe the terms of their agreement with the federal government.
Their three daughters quickly become fascinated with Constantin and would quarrel over who would pull him out of his crib when he woke up from sleeping.
The baby’s foster mother meticulously documented his progress for Ms Mutu, keeping in mind how difficult it would be to miss moments like when he first darted across the living room floor or developed the belly laugh that shook his whole body.
He would do new sounds or something but only for a short amount of time, so his foster mom wanted his mother to be able to hear that, and his real mother always wondered if he had any teeth yet, so when he would smile, you could see, so she just wanted her to see that.
The foster mom poured herself into caring for Constantin while she fought to understand how he had come into their home and she couldn’t imagine being the person who grabs hold of a child and just takes them, but she said that if she were in that situation, she would want someone out there to take care of her child.
Constantin was still in diapers when he arrived in federal immigration court in Detroit, four months to the day after he arrived in Michigan, on June 14, 2018.
Throughout the five minute proceeding, he babbled on his foster mother’s lap as she sat on the defendant’s bench.
His pro bono legal representative asked that he be returned to Romania as quickly as possible at government expense.
A lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security argued against the application, stating that as an ‘arriving alien’, Constantin was not eligible for such help.
The judge promptly ruled against her, challenging the idea that the respondent should be responsible for making his way back to Romania as an 8-month-old, and the judge granted the application made on behalf of Constantin, giving the government three months to either appeal or send him home.
By the time Constantin’s travel arrangements were booked, a few weeks after President Trump met with a surge of public outrage, had rescinded the family separation policy, he was 9 months old and had spent the majority of his life in the custody of the United States government.
Florentina and Vasile Mutu didn’t sleep that night before the reunion. They were standing at baggage claim at the airport in Bucharest when they eventually spotted Constantin, hours behind schedule, bobbing toward them in his foster mother’s arms.
She gave the baby to his mother, but he screamed and reached back in the other direction, his face wrinkling into a knot of panic.
The Mutus family had to stop numerous times on their way home to reassure Constantin, who bucked and cried to the point of hyperventilation.
For weeks after, his mother struggled to get him to eat or sleep and exchanged text messages with his foster mother, who volunteered guidance on how he liked to be cuddled and fed.
In the case she had packed, she included $200 in cash, the daily allowance that Bethany Christian Services foster children received, along with clothes, pacifiers, toys and books that Constantin liked, and his favourite blue and green striped blanket.
Florentina Mutu struggled with conflicting emotions of gratefulness and guilt. She said that he’d been spoilt. That he’d lived comfortably there, in a nice house, not as they lived there in Romania.
The Mutus family, are seeking a claim for damages against the United States, but for now, they’re back in their community where they grew up, crammed temporarily into a small house they share with another family with one bathroom, no shower, which is shared amongst 11 people.
They wash with cups of water heated on the stove and keep their clothes in an attic, climbing a wobbly ladder every few days to change them.
Constantin has adjusted gradually but he’s susceptible to loud sounds and crowds make him cry, which is a problem because loud sounds and crowds are both part of Roma culture and his mother said that he’s not the same as he would have been if they had the opportunity to raise him.
At 18 months old, he still can’t walk without holding onto someone’s hand and he babbles and squeals, but as far as words go, he says absolutely nothing.
Following Constantin’s return to Romania, his foster parents took two months off from fostering to adjust to him being sent back.
Ms Acevedo left her job after all of the separated children on her caseload were reunited with their parents. She just couldn’t get over it and she said that if she couldn’t get over it, imagine all those children.
The Mutu family have returned to travelling through Europe to make enough money to buy a new home. In the last few months, they’ve lived in a trailer and picked produce in Sicily and went to the Ukraine and Poland to hunt for secondhand clothing that they can resell, Constantin and his siblings always in tow.
Both parents still dream out loud about returning to the United States but they would have to get to Canada and from there take a taxi to America and pay seven or eight or ten thousand dollars to prepare the documents that they would require.
Ms Mutu’s brother, who has since returned from Florida said he thinks they’re deluded. He said he hated the United States, he said it was full of struggling immigrants and other disadvantaged people and by then he’d admitted to them that he ended up in a crowded three-bedroom apartment shared with many other families, struggling to make the rent.
The only food he could afford to eat was worse than what they had in Romania, and he said that the laws are very stringent in the United States, you can’t even beg there.
We should be outraged and heartbroken by this story and our hearts should go out to the infant, who had precious little or no perception of what was happening to him.
And his father was treated so brutally by the Americans, and our hearts should go out to the foster family who became so attached to little Constantin and this whole chapter in our history is crazy.
The Child Separation Policy is a stain on America that will resonate for generations or more, and it’s really difficult to comprehend what kind of person it takes to separate a child from its parents in the first place and then to argue that that baby shouldn’t be returned home.
And while we should rightfully blame Donald Trump and his flunkies, let’s also place bipartisan blame on Congress who have never dared to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
They might have come to the country illegally, but there’s no reason why they should be treated like cattle instead of human beings. They’re simply seeking to find a better way of life for their families and if anyone was in the same situation, they would also do the same thing.
We don’t get a choice before we’re born of where we end up, to what family, culture or part of the world and children are our future, yet they’re being treated like trash and the scourge of society.
And if the policy were insane, it might be forgivable on some level but instead, here you have a prosperous, first world country, who freely elect people who intentionally write these insane policies and then they’re allowed to remain in government and that’s much worse.
Of course, the policy is designed to be cruel, crueller than anyone would or could ever imagine an American or a human being to be.
And every complicit person should be brought down to stop them ever holding elected office again or forever sleeping peacefully at home with their children nearby and people who designed this policy are evil, wicked human beings.
This was a baby, who may never completely recover from the two separations and this is morally and ethically culpable which I’m sure most people, but apparently, not all people would agree.
And the Homeland Security lawyer argued that an 8-month-old child should pay his way back to Romania and not the US government. That would have meant paying the foster parents to keep him until he was old enough to come up with the money for a flight back to a country where years later he wouldn’t be able to speak the language, so it’s a good thing the judge overruled because clearly, Homeland Security lacks any common sense.
America urgently needs to develop a balanced, civilised and just approach to overall immigration reform and asylum because tearing children from their parents is unacceptable.
However, at the same time, there’s an incoherent and unpredictable approach to border control and defining asylum or guidelines for immigration that have led to chaos and have ignited a feeling amongst many in the country that they’re being invaded, leading to all manner of inhumane situations in which a child can be taken away from its family.
With Donald Trump telling people that he’s cutting aid to countries in Central America so that he can help to stabilise and lessen migrant movements but he knows that he’s stoking fears of the ‘alien and the other’, and that’s his key to keeping the people incensed and supportive of his re-election.
This is a tragic story and the Trump administration has done numerous bad things but this is by far the most damaging and America should be ashamed of themselves.
And we shouldn’t think of the gravity of the family’s request for asylum, that’s not the point of the story, the point is the policy of family separation that has virtually destroyed a child, and you can extrapolate that to every single child who was put in foster care or a group setting.
Even if they were reunited with their family, the trauma to those children and parent have gone too deep and those wounds are not going to heal quickly or easily or perhaps never at all, and it’s the administrations disregard for the parent-child bond that’s the point of this story.
This not only about the immigration policy, it’s about how we treat the most defenceless people and I’m not only talking about migrants, but I’m also talking about the sick and disabled and the most vulnerable people in society.
The behaviour of the parents doesn’t excuse what happened to the child or their lack of education, they should be handled with some modicum of compassion and dignity because we can implement laws and deport people without treating them as if their lives have no worth.
They were following the dreams that myriads of other immigrants have followed for hundreds of years. They were aspiring to better their and their children’s lives, but sorrowfully, the beacon of hope the US once was is now a misconception.
They sold their home believing they would be welcomed in the US, but instead, were treated like criminals and their child taken from them for months, and just because we understand the reality of such a move, being aware of the current contempt towards immigrants doesn’t mean someone thousands of miles away who wants a better life for their children will know what they’ll be up against when they make their way to America.
America is not great, they’re inhumane and full of indulgence and they’re not the land of the free and home of the brave.
Some of our ancestors arrived on the shores of America, most were impoverished Irish, Italian and poor Jews when they came, and the doors were open to them. Most couldn’t even read or write, but many of them ended up going to graduate school.
The Mutu family had enough drive to make it to America from Romania and enough courage to leave behind half of their children, just like our ancestors did.
But what we see now is different kinds of government relief whining about immigrants taking their non-existent jobs and the administration’s inhumanity against children have harmed thousands of small children, even infants.
And frightful stories of trauma and brutality surface weekly from the border crisis, where the Trump Administration’s xenophobic policies only seem to make things worse for the growing number of migrants frantically seeking to enter the United States to seek asylum.
Many of the stories are related to Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy, which has separated thousands of children from their parents, all without tracking families in a safe manner, and all without a plan of what to do next.
The Trump administration family separation policy was an aspect of US President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
The policy was introduced to the public as a zero-tolerance strategy designed to discourage illegal immigration and to promote tougher legislation and it was adopted across the whole US-Mexico border from April 2018 until June 2018.
However, later investigations found that the use of family separations had started a year before public announcement.
Under the policy, federal authorities separated children from parents or guardians with whom they’d entered the US.
The adults were prosecuted and detained in federal cells, and the children put under the supervision of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
By early June 2018, it emerged that the policy didn’t include steps to reunite the families that it had separated.
This created a child migration crisis, and following national and international criticism, on June 20, 2018, President Trump endorsed an executive order ending family separations at the border, and on June 26, 2018, US District Judge Dana Sabraw of the US District Court of the Southern District of California issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the family separation policy and order that all children be reunited with their parents inside 30 days.
Since June 2018, despite the official end of the separation policy, hundreds of additional children have been separated from their parents, and in March 2019, the government reported that since that time, 245 children had been separated from their families, in some instances without clear documentation undertaken to track them, to reunite them with their parents.
And in July 2019, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform reported that over 700 children had been separated from their parents after the policy’s official end, and in July, it was reported that as many as five children per day were being separated, and by October, the total had reached 1,090.
In January 2019, the administration admitted that thousands of children may have be been separated from their families than the earlier reported figure of 2,737, with officials unsure of the exact number.
An investigation has revealed that the child separation policy had begun in the summer of 2017, before the zero-tolerance policy announced in April 2018.
Federal officials announced there were no plans to try to reunite these children because it would destabilise the permanency of their current home environment, and could be traumatic to the children.
And in May 2019, the administration confirmed that at least an additional 1,712 migrant children may have been separated from their parents even before the Zero-Tolerance policy was executed.
In June 2019, a group of attorneys who were involved with the Flores settlement visited a Border Patrol centre in Clint, Texas. The children told the lawyers that meals consisted of instant oatmeal, a cookie and a sweetened drink for breakfast, instant noodles for lunch, and a heated frozen burrito and a cookie for dinner.
They said they’d not had a clean change of clothing or a bath for weeks and that there were no adult caretakers and that ten and fourteen-year-old girls were taking care of the younger ones.
President George W Bush started the trend of a Zero Tolerance strategy in 2005 with Operation Streamline, but through his administration, exceptions were usually made for adults travelling with children.
US President Barack Obama made adjustments to the immigration policy, freeing parents and concentrating on the deportation of immigrants who committed crimes in the US.
He endeavoured to cope with the 2014 American immigration crisis as a wave of unaccompanied children and women who were escaping violence in Central America entered the country whilst trying to comply with the 1997 Flores v Reno Settlement Agreement consent decree by keeping families together.
Under Barack Obama, the Department of Homeland Security built family detention centres in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Texas. Unaccompanied children were kept in holding cells, divided by age and gender whilst suitable placements were located.
In 2005 Barack Obama introduced the Family Case Management Programme, which according to the fact sheet about the programme, specifically prioritised families with specific vulnerabilities, including pregnant or nursing family members, those with extremely young children, family members with medical or mental health concerns, families who spoke only indigenous languages, and other special needs to allow an alternative to being held in detention centres while awaiting the court to prepare their asylum cases, which usually takes years.
In 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Flores v Lynch, that detained immigrant children should be released as promptly as possible, but that parents were not required to be released.
The Obama administration complied by freeing women and children after detaining them together for 21 days, but Presidential candidate Donald Trump declared ending catch and release was the second of his two priorities for immigration reform, after walling off Mexico.
When the administration started separating families, pro-Trump pundits asserted that the administration was fulfilling the same policy as the Obama administration, but according to PolitiFact, the affirmation that Donald Trump was implementing the same policy as Barack Obama was misleading, noting that Obama’s immigration policy explicitly endeavoured to circumvent breaking up families.
While some children were separated from their parents under Barack Obama, this was comparatively rare and families were promptly reunited even if that meant the release of a parent from detention, although the Obama Administration did contemplate separating families but decided against it.
Supposedly, Donald Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller was the single drive behind the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.
In December 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Centre reported that Stephen Miller endeavoured to promote white nationalism, far-right extremist views and anti-immigrant rhetoric through the conservative website Breitbart, and a report alleged that they’d obtained emails showing Stephen Miller as possessed with ideas such as white genocide and distinctly curbing nonwhite immigration.
In January 2017, the American Immigration Council and five other advocacy organisations filed a grievance with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties opposing the systemic denial of entry to asylum seekers.
It’s not legal for the US to refuse anyone the right to seek asylum. Nevertheless, according to advocacy lawyers, asylum seekers presenting at border crossings were refused for an assortment of reasons, saying the daily quota had been reached, that they were required to present a visa, or that they needed to schedule an appointment through Mexican authorities, none of which was correct, and we’ve essentially reached a place where applying for asylum is not accessible to most people.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General concluded that this system, which it terms metering legal entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal admission into the United States to cross the border illegally.
The administration further cancelled the Central American Minors Programme (CAM) which had given hope to parents that they would be able to bring their child into the US legally, closing the parole part of the programme in August 2017 and no longer taking new applications for the refugee portion of the programme as of November 9, 2017.
The CAM programme had allowed some parents to bring their children legally to the US since 2015, with the children obtaining special refugee standing, but due to the processing setbacks, the programme had not granted relief for those who faced the threat of immediate danger, yet at the level of the individual family’s it had made it less attractive to bring children illegally, as there was the possibility of legal entry.
On July 15, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice announced an Interim Final Rule to take effect on July 16 that would rule foreigners who cross the US-Mexico border unsuitable for asylum if they’d not previously applied for asylum in countries they’d travelled through, effectively rejecting asylum claims on the border from nationals of Central America and Cuba.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) vowed to immediately challenge the rule in court. On July 24, 2019, judge Timothy Kelly of the DC District Court upheld the new rule, but that same day judge Jon Tigar of the Northern California District Court issued a preliminary injunction against the rule, blocking its implementation until the legal matters could be determined.
After some back and forth rulings on whether this hold applied nationwide, the Supreme Court struck down the hold on September 11, while the court’s challenge to the policy continued.
From July to October 2017, the Trump administration ran what the DHS called a pilot programme for zero tolerance in El Paso. Families were separated, including families that were seeking asylum, and children were then reclassified as unaccompanied and sent into a labyrinth of shelters with no policy created to reunite them with their parents.
The existence of this initial pilot programme first became publicly known in June 2018, with broadcasting by NBC News from information given by DHS.
In May 2018, NPR spoke with a director at The Young Centre for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an agency that advocates for the children’s best interests.
Asked if staff had seen an uptick in children coming in with parents and then separated from them at the border, the director informed NPR that they’d noticed as early as late spring of 2017, and through the winter and then in the spring, a notable number of children that were referred to them for the placement of a child advocate for kids taken from their parents at the border.
According to an April 2018 memorandum acquired by The Washington Post, the government viewed the El Paso experiment as successful in that it showed a 64 per cent reduction in apprehensions while apprehensions started to increase in October when it was delayed.
According to a Border Patrol report on the initiative, the El Paso sector processed about 1,800 individuals in families and 281 individuals in families that were separated under the initiative.
This experiment was ultimately used by ICE, CBP, and CIS to launch the zero-tolerance programme across the whole Southwest border in April.
Two weeks after Donald Trump was initiated as president on January 20, 2017, the administration reviewed the idea of separating immigrant children from their mothers as a way to discourage asylum seekers.
In March 2017, it was first reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was considering a proposal to separate parents from their children if they were caught attempting to cross the border into the United States.
John Kelly, then-Secretary of Homeland Security, reinforced that the policy was under consideration, but later dismissed it.
The director of the National Immigration Law Centre said that the policy, if executed, would amount to state-sanctioned brutality against children, against families that were coming to the United States to seek refuge and that the administration didn’t act with clarity in explaining what was being introduced.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement to address media news of the plan and that they advised policymakers to always be mindful that these people were defenceless, frightened children, and they offered to help Homeland Security in crafting immigration procedures that protect children.
In March, more than a month before the official zero-tolerance decision, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration charging that the administration was illegally separating hundreds of children from their parents while the parents awaited asylum proceedings.
On April 5, the DHS announced they were no longer considering the policy partly due to the steep slump in mothers attempting to travel to the US with their children. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions then ordered an acceleration of federal prosecutions.
Parents were being charged with misdemeanours and detained while their children were classified as unaccompanied and put under DHS care.
Inside five months, hundreds of children were reported to have been separated from their parents, and in late April 2018, the media reported that a review of the government data found that about 700 migrant children, more than 100 of them under the age of 4, had been taken from their parents since October 2017.
At that time Department of Homeland Security officials stated they didn’t split families to discourage immigration but rather to protect the best interests of minor children crossing the border. Maintaining it would save $12 million a year, and in June the Trump administration ended the Family Case Management Programme, which kept asylum-seeking mothers and their children out of detention.
By December, following a new wave in families crossing the southern border, the DHS was again considering the policy to separate children from parents.
In January 2018, following testimony from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in which she refused to rule out implementing the proposed policy of the separation of parents from their children, more than 200 child welfare organisations issued a letter calling for the Trump administration to abandon proposals to effectively separate children from their parents at the US border.
The letter said, in part: “We know that this policy would have significant and long-lasting consequences for the safety, health, development, and well-being of children. Children need to be cared for by their parents to be safe and healthy, to grow and develop. Forced separation disrupts the parent-child relationship and puts children at increased risk for both physical and mental illness. The Administration’s plan would eviscerate the principle of family unity and put children in harm’s way.”
On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy for all crimes related to the misdemeanour of improper admission into the United States, and that the zero-tolerance policy would succeed any current policies.
This would aim to criminally convict first-time offenders when historically they would face civil and administrative removal, while criminal convictions were normally held for those who committed the offence of illegal re-entry after removal.
On May 7, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced:
If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you. If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law.
Multiple media accounts, as well as firsthand testimony from detained migrants to members of Congress, reported that immigrant families lawfully presenting themselves at ports of entry seeking asylum were also being separated.
Speaking on Face the Nation on June 17, Senator Susan Collins stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen had testified before the Senate that asylum seeks with families would not be separated if they presented themselves at a legal port of entry. Yet various reliable media accounts were revealing exactly what was happening and later in the day Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted that they didn’t have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.
The department of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security didn’t take steps in advance of the April 2018 announcement to prepare for family separations or a possible rise in the number of children who would be assigned to Office of Refugee Resettlement because they didn’t have warning of the announcement, according to agency officials interviewed by the Government Accountability Office.
Even though they didn’t get warning of the April 2018 announcement, the Office of Refugee Resettlement officials stated they were aware that increased separations of parents and children were happening before the April announcement, stating the percentage of children referred to the agency who were known to have been separated from their parents increased by more than tenfold from November 2016 to August 2017.
The policy is distinctly unpopular, more so than any other major bill or executive action in recent memory, and poll aggregates show that about 25 per cent of Americans supported the policy.
Following the May announcement, dozens of protest marches were held, attracting thousands.
In Washington, DC, Democratic members of Congress marched in protest. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the Trump administration to immediately end its policy of separating children from their parents, and human rights activists criticised that policy, insofar as it’s also applied to asylum seekers and opposes Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.
From January 2018 to June 2018, the civil rights office of the Department of Homeland Security got 850 complaints about family separations, most of which came from a fellow federal government branch, the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite previously stating that you can’t change the policy through an executive order, on June 20, 2018, Donald Trump yielded to extreme political pressure and signed an executive order to reverse the policy while still keeping zero-tolerance border control by detaining entire families together.
Asked by a reporter why he’d taken so long to sign the order, Donald Trump stated that it had been going on for 60 years and that nobody had taken care of it, nobody had the political courage to take care of it but they were going to take care of it.
The Trump administration said that they would use the government ‘central database’ to reconnect the thousands of families that had been separated. However, with the release of emails obtained by NBC News in 2019, it was found that there was no central database and the government had only enough information to reconnect 60 children with their parents.
When it became apparent that zero tolerance could not be maintained while keeping families together within the scope of court rulings, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan announced on June 25 that the agency would stop referring every person caught crossing the border illegally for prosecution, effectively ending the zero-tolerance policy.
Achieving zero tolerance was an enormous challenge operationally and Border Patrol stations were being overwhelmed by the number of children being held in crowded conditions in holding cells while their parents were processed in court and held in immigration detention, and agents were spending more time processing detained immigrants than securing the border.
On June 26, a Federal Court ordered the government to reunify separated families with children under age five inside 14 days of the order, and families with minor children age five and over within 30 days of the order.
On September 20, 2018, the government reported to the court that it had reunified or otherwise released 2,167 of the 2,551 children over five who’d been separated from a parent and considered eligible for reunification by the Government.
However, a report released in January 2019 showed that while HHS had previously stated that the total number of children separated from their parent was less than 3,000, a new investigation showed that the real number of separated children was several thousand higher, with the precise number unknown due to inadequate record-keeping.