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White House considers separating families to combat illegal immigration

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

President Donald Trump.

By Caitlin Dickerson and Ron Nixon New York Times  

The Trump administration is considering a new policy that would separate parents from their children when families are caught entering the country illegally, according to officials who have been briefed on the plans. The forceful move is meant to discourage border crossings, but immigrant groups have denounced it as draconian and inhumane.

Under current policy, families are kept intact while awaiting a decision on whether they will be deported; they are either held in special family detention centers or released with a court date. The policy under discussion would send parents to adult detention facilities, while their children would be placed in shelters designed for juveniles or with a “sponsor,” who could be a relative in the United States, though the administration may also tighten rules on sponsors.

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The policy is favored by the White House, and has been approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to three officials at the Department of Homeland Security and one at the White House who have all been briefed on the proposal but declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. The officials said that the new Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who has final approval power, has yet to sign off on the proposal.

The debate comes as the administration faces an influx of people crossing the southern U.S. border illegally. As soon as President Donald Trump took office, the number of people caught crossing the border dropped sharply, a sign that far fewer people were even trying. Only 11,677 apprehensions were recorded in April, the lowest number in at least 17 years, according to Customs and Border Protection.

Administration officials heralded the drop as a “Trump effect,” with his tough talk on illegal immigration and a surge in immigration arrests discouraging Mexicans and Central Americans from making the journey.

But the number of people caught has been on the rise, reaching 29,086 in November, the most since January, a trend that has worried some administration officials and is weighing on the decision to separate parents from children. That month, 7,000 “family units” were apprehended, as well as 4,000 “unaccompanied minors,” or children traveling without an adult relative.

This fall, the White House convened a group of officials from two of its own offices — the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council — as well as from Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the State Department, to look into ways to curtail border crossings, particularly those of children. The family separation policy, which was reported on Thursday by The Washington Post, is among the solutions being considered.

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The vexing question of how to stem the flow of migrants into the country has frustrated the White House, under both Democratic and Republican control, for years. Former President Barack Obama tried to do it by fast-tracking some deportations and by starting a media campaign in Central America to warn people about the dangers of the journey to the United States. But both of those measures were largely unsuccessful, and crossings reached unprecedented levels during the Obama presidency. Previous administrations have stopped short of resorting to policies like family separation, because of concerns that it could force people into the hands of dangerous smugglers who sell themselves as a way to evade the Border Patrol, or force people with legitimate claims for asylum to remain in life-threatening situations in their home countries.

Most Mexicans and Central Americans trying to enter the U.S. are considered economic migrants and are thus denied asylum, which requires evidence of persecution. But asylum cases often take years to litigate, and the Trump administration has made a point of discouraging people from even trying to come. When he was Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, now the president’s chief of staff, often talked about the dangers of the trip.

Rape and kidnappings for ransom are common en route to the U.S., and a report from the United Nations International Organization of Migration documented 232 cases from January through July of people who died trying to cross rugged terrain or rivers, or in unsafe conditions inside trains or buses, even before they got to the border.

Still, the prospect of breaking a sacred bond between parent and child has not been an easy decision. Kelly said early this year that he was considering the move, but after an uproar from immigrant advocates and some members of Congress, he said that families would be separated only in extreme circumstances, such as when the child was in danger because of the parent.

According to one of the Homeland Security officials briefed on the proposal, even some people in the department who support strict enforcement of immigration laws see family separation as going too far.

But even without a formal change in policy, immigrant advocates say that families are already being separated on occasion. The Women’s Refugee Commission and other organizations published a report this month that said it had documented more than 150 cases in 2017.

“It interferes with due process, and is really just cruel,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the organization. “Children feel that they are being abandoned, literally being ripped out of their parents’ arms.”

One of those parents, José Fuentes, presented himself to immigration officers at the border, along with his 1-year-old son Mateo, to claim asylum in November. The family had fled El Salvador with a caravan of asylum-seekers because of gang violence, said Fuentes’ wife, Olivia Acevedo.

After four days of being held in custody together, Fuentes was transferred to a detention facility more than 1,000 miles away, in San Diego, California, while their son was held in a facility for children in Laredo, Texas.

For six days afterward, Acevedo said, she, her husband and their lawyers could not confirm where Mateo was. They were terrified.

“Can you imagine?” she said in Spanish in a telephone interview from Mexico, where she remains with the couple’s other son, Andrée, who is 4. “It’s inhuman to take a baby from its parents.”

She saw Mateo for the first time since their separation last week, through a five-minute video call arranged by the facility where he is being held. Mateo cried the whole time, she said, adding “It’s a form of torture.”

She said that if her husband had known that he would be separated from their son, they would not have tried to cross the border.

That reaction is precisely what the creators of the policy are hoping for, according to the officials, who also said the administration was considering new policies on unaccompanied minors. The government already has begun to use anti-smuggling laws to prosecute parents or other relatives of the children if they themselves are in the United States illegally. A new policy under consideration would beef up background checks of adults who show up to claim the children after they are apprehended.

Another proposal involves random spot checks of the homes where the children are taken, which would most likely result in even more immigration arrests, as those homes often contain other unauthorized immigrants.