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The Horrors of Family Separation Continue

Setting the record straight on Trump’s immigration policy.
No Family Separation

By on October 28, 2020

During the final presidential debate of 2020, moderator Kristen Welker finally directed the public’s attention to immigration policy, after weeks in which the topic had been largely erased from discussion about the campaign. As critical as it is to get the candidates’ views on this subject, however, President Donald Trump regrettably seized it as yet another opportunity to promote disinformation about his anti-immigrant and anti-asylum record. 

While both men running for the office of president in 2020 have a great deal to answer for on immigration policy, the Trump administration must not be allowed to obscure the truth about the evils they have inflicted on countless families. Therefore, we are fact-checking some of the candidate’s most false assertions.

Who is to blame for family separation?

Just days before the closing presidential debate, media reports revealed that hundreds of children in U.S. custody who were separated under Trump’s policies have never been reunited with their parents. This news sent shudders through the public conscience and underlined once again the effects of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy targeting asylum-seeking families. When Welker confronted Trump with these reports, however, he dodged the issue by making a host of misleading claims, asserting that the separated children were brought to the United States by “coyotes,” “cartels,” and other “bad people.”

The facts: The children subjected to the “zero tolerance” policy were largely traveling with their parents, and were separated from their parents, as Trump is aware. Senior administration officials knew this would be the consequence of their policies at the time they concocted them. As a recent internal government investigation confirmed, family separation was planned and implemented by high-ranking members of Trump’s cabinet, with the goal of taking children of any age away from their parents. The purpose of this policy was to deliberately inflict psychological pain and heartbreak on immigrant families in order to deter people from seeking asylum in the United States—a practice that violates internationally-protected human rights and constitutes torture, according to medical experts. 

While we can and should point to grave abuses committed by prior administrations as well, this fact cannot be stressed enough: The family separation policy was unique to the Trump administration and was the brainchild of the president’s high-ranking officials.

Did prior administrations also detain children?

After uttering these falsehoods about the origins of the family separation policy, Trump next went on the attack, implying that the prior Democratic administration was responsible for similar or worse crimes against children seeking asylum. While it is clear that Trump officials alone are responsible for separating families and implementing “zero tolerance,” this argument raises an important question: What is the record of previous administrations on asylum, and how does it compare? Even if they didn’t separate families, did the Obama administration lock up families with children in prison-like conditions?

The facts: Yes. In fact, UUSC’s current migrant justice program emerged in response to the Obama administration’s reintroduction of family detention in 2014. UUSC condemned this practice—which entails confining parents and children together in detention centers—as another form of unlawful deterrence meant to interfere with the human right to asylum. In 2015, we applauded when a federal judge set a limit of 20 days for the amount of time families with children could be held in prison-like facilities.

As harmful and unjust as the family detention policy is, however, Trump is in no position to criticize it. In reality, Trump has sought to actively expand the practice at every opportunity. Immediately after hurling the question “who built the cages?” at his opponent during the debate, Trump pivoted to claim credit for having ended so-called “catch and release.” By this he means nothing other than his policy of expanding family detention—and the detention of individual adult asylum-seekers—to unprecedented levels. 

“Catch and release” is a loaded and dehumanizing term for the practice of allowing asylum seekers who have passed an initial screening to live and work in the United States temporarily while they await the outcome of their immigration court proceeding. To avoid this legitimate practice, which is consistent with international human rights obligations, Trump has tried to indefinitely detain asylum-seeking families, including parents traveling with children. 

Why is this conversation happening in the past tense?

The presidential debate’s questions focused squarely on the 2018 family separation policy, perhaps because this episode—rightly—remains the most potent symbol in the public’s mind of this administration’s broader cruelty and inhumanity toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. It is a shame, however, that this focus on prior events often precludes discussion of the current—in some ways even more extreme—policies the U.S. government inflicts on asylum-seekers.

These policies include forcing asylum-seekers to wait in danger in Mexico; removing asylum-seekers to third countries they do not know; and now—during the COVID-19 pandemic—simply excluding and expelling people without any due process at all (a politically-motivated policy that was cloaked as a response to the pandemic but—as recent reporting has confirmed—was opposed by the U.S. government’s own public health experts).

The U.S. public can and should wrestle with the atrocity our government committed against thousands of asylum-seeking families in 2018, the effects of which are still playing out to this day. But we also must not forget the thousands of people excluded, expelled, and deported under more recent restrictions, including asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children removed from the country with no chance to seek protection under “Title 42,” and the thousands forced to wait in make-shift camps in Mexico where they are often subject to torture, extortion, and sexual violence

Reversing these policies will not be easy or straightforward; it will demand enormous political will and good faith to accomplish. The horror that this administration has created will last for a long time, under even the most optimistic scenarios. If we are to have any hope of overcoming these evils, however, we must first arrive at a shared understanding of the facts of recent U.S. immigration policy. To do so, we must combat disinformation and spin designed to obscure these hard truths.


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: iStock – Coast-to-Coast

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