OAKLAND, Calif. — Nearly nine months after the Trump administration officially rescinded its policy of separating migrant families who have illegally crossed the border, more than 200 migrant children have been taken from parents and other relatives and placed in institutional care, with some spending months in shelters and foster homes thousands of miles away from their parents.
The latest data reported to the federal judge monitoring one of the most controversial of President Trump’s immigration policies shows that 245 children have been removed from their families since the court ordered the government to halt routine separations under last spring’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy. Some of the new separations are being undertaken with no clear documentation to help track the children’s whereabouts.
Images of crying mothers and children at the border last year prompted an intense backlash across party lines, with all four living former first ladies and Melania Trump expressing horror at the policy. But despite Trump’s June 20 executive order rescinding it, the practice was never completely suspended.
Under the original policy, most children were removed because parents who illegally crossed the border were subject to criminal prosecution. The recent separations have occurred largely because parents have been flagged for fraud, a communicable disease, or past criminal history — in some cases relatively minor violations, years in the past, that ordinarily would not lead to the loss of parental custody.
The new separations are taking place amid an unprecedented influx of migrant families from across the southern border that has highlighted the failure of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies to deter them. The Border Patrol detained 76,103 migrants in February, an 11-year high for that month. Among those intercepted were about 40,000 members of families, two-thirds more than in January.
In Congress last week, Democrats grilled Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, over the separation policy, citing research that has found that separations from parents can inflict long-term psychological harm on children.
Family separations also sometimes occurred under the Obama administration, but only rarely and in extreme cases in which a child’s safety appeared to be at risk.
Customs and Border Protection officials say the separations are legal under the parameters set by the court and are intended to protect children, who they say may be threatened by human trafficking or by adults pretending to be a parent to capitalize on the advantage that gives them under US immigration laws.
“CBP does not declare that a parent poses danger to a child arbitrarily or without merit,” the agency said in a statement. It said agents “will maintain family unity to the greatest extent operationally feasible,” separating children only in the presence of “a legal requirement” set out in written policy or “an articulable safety or security concern that requires separation.”
But opposition to the new separations has been growing from both outside and inside the federal government. At the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care of separated children until they can be reunited with their families, some officials have tried to resist receiving children referred to the agency by the Border Patrol.
According to an official who was not authorized to discuss government business and spoke on the condition of anonymity, staff members have in some cases raised questions with Border Patrol agents about separations with what appear to be little or no justification. In some of those cases, border agents have refused to provide additional information, the official said, or if additional documents were provided, they were sometimes redacted to the point of illegibility.
The official, along with another staff member at the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said some separations were occurring with no formal notification to the refugee resettlement office. Both officials said they had been made aware of concerns about an apparent inconsistency in standards applied by border agents when determining whether a family should be separated.
The failure to keep accurate records suggests that more children could have been separated than the 245 accounted for by Feb. 20 in official records.
The New York Times reviewed several cases of children who have been separated since the policy was officially ended, and learned of many others through the lawyers who handled them. Some of the new separations, the review showed, occurred in families with a parent who had a drunken-driving conviction in the past, or a 20-year-old nonviolent robbery conviction. In one case, a parent had been convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Donna Abbott, vice president for refugee and immigrant services at Bethany Christian Services, a contractor that accommodates migrant children in temporary foster homes until they can be reunited with family members, said most cases of family separations do not list detailed reasons, making it difficult to evaluate whether they were appropriate.
For example, some files state only that the parent was suspected of having gang affiliations or a criminal history, without additional information. “Is it trespassing or is it murder?” Abbott said.
In December, a mother traveling from El Salvador with her three children was arrested and put on a bus to an immigration detention facility in Arizona while her children, ages 5, 8 and 15, were sent to foster care in New York.
The woman, Deisy Ramirez, 38, said it was nearly six weeks before she talked to her children.
They were “devastated,” said Ramirez’s sister, Silvia Ramirez, who was trying to persuade the government to allow her to take the children to live with her in Seattle while her sister was in custody. “They couldn’t understand why they were separated,” she said.
On March 1, Deisy Ramirez’s eldest daughter was transferred to a hospital after threatening to take her own life, Silvia Ramirez said, and she remained there even after her mother’s release from detention last week.
“I never imagined this could happen,” Deisy Ramirez said Friday, her voice breaking. “All I want is to hold my children and to be with them.”
Her lawyer, Ricardo de Anda, said he had received no response to his formal request for a reason for the separation. He suspects it may be connected to the fact that Deisy Ramirez had been deported from the United States more than a decade ago. He sent government lawyers a series of emails, ultimately securing her release.
On Saturday, the day after her release from the Arizona detention facility, Deisy Ramirez was preparing to fly to New York to reunite with her children.
Border agents removed 3-year-old Ashley Ramos from her father after they were detained last month in Arizona. He was swiftly deported to Guatemala and the girl was sent to a shelter.
The child’s mother, Silvia Maribel Ramos, who had been separated from the pair during their journey from Guatemala when Mexican police pulled her and other migrants off their bus for questioning, arrived in Arizona a few days later, only to learn from authorities that her child was gone.
“They told me they had no idea where she was, that I would find out after being released,” said Ramos, who is staying with relatives in Oakland, California.
The child was located nearly two weeks later, she said, after her husband contacted Guatemalan authorities back home. Now Ramos is struggling with the paperwork required to recover Ashley. “My daughter can’t understand. She just weeps and begs to be with us,” she said.
In late January, Victor Antonio Marin was separated from his 4-year-old son, whose mother is deceased, after they were detained near Calexico, California. According to his lawyer, Bob Boyce, Marin had a 20-year-old nonviolent robbery conviction in the United States that did not involve the use of a weapon. He served time and was deported back to El Salvador.
Now Marin remains locked up in an immigration detention center while his child is in a shelter in Texas.
Ruben Garcia, who runs a network of migrant shelters in El Paso, Texas, said that immigration authorities this month dropped off a distraught 18-year-old woman from Guatemala.
The woman said she had given birth less than a week earlier and had been separated from her baby. Child welfare authorities had come to the hospital to take the child, who was a U.S. citizen; immigration agents took the mother back to a detention cell where she waited for several days. The baby’s first two weeks were spent away from the mother, who finally regained custody after interventions from multiple legal-aid groups, Garcia said.
Since Trump ended the family separations under “zero tolerance” on June 20, about 2,700 children have been reunited with their parents. Still, thousands more children who were separated before the policy officially went into effect have not been accounted for, according to the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. The investigators cited the lack of an efficient tracking system.
The American Civil Liberties Union requested that the government locate the families, and on Friday, Judge Dana M. Sabraw ruled that they should be included in the pending litigation over protecting and reuniting separated families.
“The hallmark of a civilized society is measured by how it treats its people and those within its borders,” the judge wrote in his opinion.