Of the many dehumanizing procedures faced by detained migrants at the southern border — designed to degrade and deter those pursuing asylum in the United States — none have reverberated among the American public like the practice of family separation. Last June, outrage over the policy of dividing migrant families in the custody of Department of Homeland Security led to an executive order ending the policy, though not exactly fixing the problem: New rules proposed by the Trump administration effectively allow migrant children to be detained indefinitely with their parents, violating the Flores agreement, which limits child detention to 20 days.
More than 2,700 families were known to have been separated when the policy was active. But on Thursday — hours before the expiration of a six-month deadline laid down by the U.S. Court for the Southern District of California requiring the administration to identify all children separated — the White House informed the American Civil Liberties Union that an additional 1,556 migrant families were separated between July 2017 and June 2018, bringing the new total to at least 4,300 separated families. Most of the children removed from their parents’ custody were under 12, and over 200 were younger than 5 years old.
This month, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been engaging in an image-rehab effort. Speaking at Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women” summit, she claimed that she “spoke truth to power from the very beginning,” while adding that she did not regret enforcing child separation because “I took an oath to do that.” Last month, a government-watchdog report stated that separated migrant children have suffered from “feelings of fear or guilt” and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Responding to the new 1,556 separation number, the ACLU stated that it was unclear if these families had been reunited. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt told the Washington Post that he fears the parents of these separated children have already been deported. “These are the families we’re going to have to search for all over the world,” Gelernt said. “We’re still in the middle of trying to find them.”