Myths and facts: Trump’s separation of families and detention of children at the US-Mexico border

Media Matters has gathered and debunked the most common strains of misinformation attempting to whitewash the cruel and unusual practice.

SOURCEMedia Matters for America
Image Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s separation of families and detention of children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border has spawned a wave of right-wing misinformation dedicated to concealing or minimizing the unique cruelty of his immigration enforcement policies. Media Matters has gathered and debunked the most common strains of misinformation attempting to whitewash the cruel and unusual practice.

Myth: Families are not being separated.

Myth: The Trump administration is just following the law by separating families.

Myth: A Republican immigration bill will end child detention.

Myth: Children are not being kept in “cages.”

Myth: Past administrations had the same policy of separating families.

Myth: The policy is humane because the children are being housed in clean facilities with adequate food and medical care.

Myth: The Trump administration is diligently reuniting families after resolving their cases.

Myth: Separating families is necessary to prevent human trafficking.

Myth: Families are not being separated.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s false defense that the administration does “not have a policy of separating families at the border” was repeatedly echoed on Fox & Friends.

Fact: Yes they are, regardless of why they say they are here. The Trump administration has in fact been separating families at the border for months. According to The Intercept, at least 1,358 children have been impacted by Trump’s policy of separating families since October 2017. ICE has even separated a mother from her 18-month-old. As Vox put it, Trump’s policy is essentially that “all adults caught crossing into the U.S. illegally are supposed to be criminally prosecuted – and when that happens to a parent, separation is inevitable” because the parents are sent to a federal jail to await a hearing, and “you can’t be kept with your children in federal jail.”

Myth: The Trump administration is just following the law by separating families.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families by arguing that officials are simply following the laws on the books. Trump loyalists in the media have amplified the White House’s false claim. Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen also indulged in the lie that the administration is merely following “the policy from previous Administrations.”

Fact: The Trump administration made a decision to classify crossing the border illegally as a criminal misdemeanor rather than a civil offense. In an effort to end “catch-and release” policies designed to protect children, the Trump administration made a decision to prosecute every immigrant caught entering the country illegally. Before the policy was announced in April, “such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation,” according to The Associated Press. Additionally, under the Trump administration, many families that are seeking asylum are being turned away from legal points of entry, forcing them to cross the border at other, unofficial locations.

Myth: A Republican immigration bill will end child detention.

Many media outlets ran with the Republican lie that the “compromise bill” brokered by conservatives and Republican moderates would prohibit family separation at the border.

Fact: The Republican bill would curtail certain protections for immigrant children in order to allow families to be detained together. While there is no specific language in the bill that would prevent children from being separated from their families, the legislation would overrule the Flores agreement of 1997, which prohibited the indefinite detention of children. As a result, the House bill would allow the Trump administration to detain families in the same facilities and forego protections awarded to children.

Myth: Children are not being kept in “cages.”

Fact: Walls made of chain link fencing constitute a “cage.” Though an embarrassingly semantic debate is transpiring over whether the fenced areas holding children  are more fairly called “cages” or “enclosures,” CBS Morning News was told by Border Patrol that it was “not inaccurate” to call the children’s confining structures “cages,” though it made agents “very uncomfortable” to hear them described that way.

Myth: Past administrations had the same policy of separating families.

President Trump himself has falsely claimed that he inherited the policy of family separation from Democrats. Others in right-wing media have suggested the policy began with President George W. Bush’s “Operation Streamline,” a 2005 attempt to prosecute all illegal border crossings.

Fact: The Obama administration detained families together. According to Vox, beginning in 2014, the Obama administration “put hundreds of families in immigration detention” together. However, a federal court ruled that the administration could not keep the families detained for so long without justifying why they were being detained. Many families therefore were released while their immigration or asylum cases worked through the court system. Conservatives derisively called this practice a “catch and release” program. While the Obama administration did have “scattered cases of family separation,” Trump’s routine family separation “has formalized into policy what is just a cruel and inhumane practice.”

Fact: Few children were separated from families during Bush-era prosecutions. In a CNN report, Migration Policy Institute director of U.S. immigration policy Doris Meissner explained that although the Bush administration increased the number of criminal prosecutions for unauthorized entry in 2005, “the phenomenon of families arriving at the US-Mexico border together dates from just the last few years, and was not one that the Bush or early Obama administrations confronted in any significant numbers.” So, according to Meissner, “few children were separated from their families during the earlier administrations as a result of criminal prosecution of the parents.”

Myth: The policy is humane because the children are being housed in clean facilities with adequate food and medical care.

Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen, along with a number of right-wing media figures, have attempted to excuse the forced separation of families by pointing to the quality of the facilities in which children have been housed. Fox’s Laura Ingraham excused the separations because the children have “entertainment, sports, tutoring, medical, dental, four meals a day, and clean, decent housing” even though their “parents irresponsibly tried to bring them across the border illegally.” Her Fox collegue Steve Doocy similarly defended family separation by suggesting the U.S. government spends a lot of money to “make sure that those kids wind up with all that stuff” that detention facilities offer.

Fact: The quality of facilities varies, and even decent facilities don’t erase the trauma of separation. The facilities that right-wing media figures insist are acceptable have been described by a reporter as feeling like “a prison or jail” and sometimes involve housing the children in cages. Photos released show the facilities for what they are:

Even if the facilities were pristine, the experience of being forcibly separated from one’s parents or children is traumatic and can have long-term psychological effects, according to experts. Business Insider wrote that family separation is so inhumane that the Trump administration’s policy has been “condemned as harmful, inhumane, and counter to accepted human rights by many groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the United Nations human rights office.”

Myth: The Trump administration is diligently reuniting families after resolving their cases.

Fox & Friends weekend host Pete Hegseth described Trump’s border policy as “holding a child humanely, temporarily, and then reuniting them with their parent.” Official guidance for people arrested for illegal entry also says that “DHS and HHS can take steps to facilitate reunification with your child(ren).”

Fact: The Trump administration is not tracking separated family members, and parents are being deported without their children. A New Yorker article reported that within the Trump administration, “no protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently, for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them.” The article also stated “there is no formal process in place to insure that a family that’s been separated at the border gets deported back to their home country together.” There have been numerous media reports of parents deported without their children, who were taken from them by the Trump administration.

Myth: Separating families is necessary to prevent human trafficking.

Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan has claimed that ICE’s “safe and healthy environments for children and teenagers to reside” actually protect them given that they are “vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.” Conservative Sinclair host Sharyl Attkisson also attempted to explain the policy by noting,“So sad how many young kids are trafficked to U.S. – under the guise that they’re the ‘children’ of the traffickers.”

Fact: Human trafficking is an issue, but in many cases a bona fide relationship between the child and adult is clear. Human trafficking is always a potential immigration enforcement issue. However, news articles about Trump’s separation of families at the border are filled with heart-wrenching anecdotes of people, mostly children, experiencing trauma clearly brought on by being separated from the person they arrived with. From The New York Times:

When he landed in Michigan in late May, all the weary little boy carried was a trash bag stuffed with dirty clothes from his dayslong trek across Mexico, and two small pieces of paper — one a stick-figure drawing of his family from Honduras, the other a sketch of his father, who had been arrested and led away after they arrived at the United States border in El Paso.

An American government escort handed over the 5-year-old child, identified on his travel documents as José, to the American woman whose family was entrusted with caring for him. He refused to take her hand. He did not cry. He was silent on the ride “home.”

The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep. Then it turned into “just moaning and moaning,” said Janice, his foster mother. He recently slept through the night for the first time, though he still insists on tucking the family pictures under his pillow.

Again, from The New York Times:

A 3-year-old boy taken from his mother at the border was inconsolable during his flight to Michigan and cried incessantly on arrival at his new home last month, she said. He recently has begun to bond with his foster mother, from whom he is now reluctant to be apart. “He seems fearful of losing yet another attachment,” Ms. Abbott said.

At first, José was sad and withdrawn. He did not initiate any interaction with the family, but followed directions from Janice, who speaks basic Spanish, to do things such as wash his hands and come to dinner.

“He kept up a little wall,” Janice said.

He refused to shed the clothes he had arrived in, an oversize yellow T-shirt, navy blue sweatpants and a gray fleece pullover likely given to him by the authorities who processed him in Texas.

“For two days, he didn’t shower, he didn’t change his clothes. I literally had to peel the socks off his feet. They were so old and smelly,” Janice said. “I realized that he didn’t want anyone to take anything away from him.”

The one thing that animated him was discussing his “photos,” as he called the family drawings.

He introduced “mi familia,” pointing to the figures of his parents, brother and younger sister. Staring intensely at the sketch of his father, with a slight mustache and a cap, he repeated his name out loud again and again.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Colleagues at a government-contracted shelter in Arizona had a specific request for Antar Davidson when three Brazilian migrant children arrived: “Tell them they can’t hug.”

Davidson, 32, is of Brazilian descent and speaks Portuguese. He said the siblings — ages 16, 10 and 6 — were distraught after being separated from their parents at the border. The children were “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” he said.

Officials had told them their parents were “lost,” which they interpreted to mean dead. Davidson said he told the children he didn’t know where their parents were, but that they had to be strong.

The caseload is straining a facility he described as understaffed and unequipped to deal with children experiencing trauma, such as the three Brazilians. During his time at the shelter, children were running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide, Davidson said. Several were being monitored this week because they were at risk of running away, self-harm and suicide, records show.

From CNN:

The undocumented immigrant from Honduras sobbed as she told an attorney Tuesday how federal authorities took her daughter while she breastfed the child in a detention center, where she was awaiting prosecution for entering the country illegally.

When the woman resisted, she was handcuffed[.]

Some parents who are under arrest tell public defenders they don’t know what happened to their children, Nogueras said. Some parents also claim they have been told their children are being taken to be bathed or cleaned up, then the adults don’t see them again.

“The government is essentially torturing people by doing this,” Cornelio said.

ProPublica also obtained audio of children, recorded just after they were separated from their parents at the border. A border patrol agent can be heard joking that “we have an orchestra here.” The “orchestra” is children crying for their parents.



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