Officially, the Trump Administration’s policies of “zero tolerance” and family separations were in effect for only two months, from April to June 2018, quickly abandoned because enough Americans rejected an immigration-deterrence strategy of conspicuous cruelty.
The key idea of “zero tolerance” was the criminal prosecution and swift deportation of anyone caught improperly crossing the U.S. Border, an offense formerly treated as a misdemeanor with a slow-moving court calendar. The immediate effect of arrest and prosecution was the forcible separation of parents from their children. The “bums’ rush” deportations meant that most of those family separations frequently threatened to become permanent. Until a federal judge forced it to act, the Trump Administration seemed quite willing to let that threat become fact: parents in Central America; kids, somewhere else. Dozens of the left-behind children were five-years-old or younger.
Of course, as is frequently the case with the Trump Administration, the “official story” of zero tolerance and family separations is one lie after another. “Zero tolerance” actually began in El Paso, Texas almost a year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly announced and named it.
During the El Paso “experiment” hundreds of parents and children were arrested and imprisoned separately, and long after zero tolerance was declared ended, it actually continued, and again, hundreds more parents and children were separated.
It took a series of interventions by federal judge Dana Sabraw to force the government to admit what it had done, for how long and to how many parents and children. The original federal accounting of 2700 migrant children who had been held – separated from their parents – in federal custody has now doubled to more than 5500.
Part of the government cover-up of un-reunited children seems pointedly malicious, but much it reeks of carelessness and incompetence. When AG Sessions launched his El Paso “pilot program” he never told the Department of Health and Human Services, or ICE that they were going to have to administer a nationwide version of it.
So, the poor federal employees taking in the migrants had no established record-keeping regime to use, no computer systems to collect and collate the records being randomly kept. The result, for Border Patrol Officers, ICE jail guards, and immigration court judges and clerks was a daily dose of desperate parents whose children have gotten lost.
But even if there were a system that worked, bringing parents and children back together was not the Trump Administration priority. Deporting the parents as fast as possible was. If that meant parents were gone to Honduras or Guatemala or Mexico and their kids were left behind, so be it. “That’ll teach ‘em to stay home.”
By the latest count, 545 separated children have never been restored to their parents, and, in another emblem of administrative dysfunction, 362 of the kids are not only lost to their families, Uncle Sam has lost them, too, their official contacts cannot be located.
Caitlin Dickerson is a national immigration reporter based in New York. Since joining The Times in 2016, she has broken news about changes in deportation and detention policy, and profiled the lives of immigrants, including those without legal status. She frequently appears as a guest on “The Daily” podcast, and has filled in as its host.
For The New York Times Magazine, she wrote about the real-life impact of fake news on a small town in Idaho that was turned upside down by anti-refugee rumors that were elevated nationally by Facebook accounts linked to the Russian government and people who went on to hold key roles in the Trump administration.
Before joining The Times, she was an investigative reporter for N.P.R., where her work was honored with a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. She was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.
As a result of her investigation into secret mustard gas experiments conducted on American troops by the United States military, a law was passed in 2017 to provide test subjects compensation for their injuries.