Family reunification

The Trump Administration Separated Thousands More Families Than We Thought

We don't even know exactly how many.


G. Ronald Lopez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The Trump administration took a lot of heat last summer for its "zero tolerance" immigration policy, in which parents who tried to cross the border with their children were separated from their sons and daughters. According to a report released today by the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office of Inspector General, the criticisms were actually understated: Thousands more children were separated from their parents than was previously known.

Last April, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy, under which every adult suspected of illegally crossing the U.S.–Mexico border would be criminally prosecuted. Their children, meanwhile, were held separately in HHS detention centers. On June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the family separations. Days later, on June 26, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunify the migrant families.

According to the inspector general report, "HHS has thus far identified 2,737 children in its care at that time who were separated from their parents." But that doesn't take into account separations that occurred before Sessions officially implemented the policy.

"Officials estimated that [the Office Refugee Resettlement] received and released thousands of separated children prior to" the June 26 court order, the report says. These children were "separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the Court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children."

"We don't have any information on those children who were released prior to the court order," an official with the HHS Office of Inspector General told reporters today, according to NBC News. That includes their "total number and current status," according to the report.

The separations started in 2017 as a sort of "trial balloon" for the zero tolerance policy, Politico reports, citing an HHS official. While the HHS report says that the children have been released, it's unclear how many are actually back with their parents. "There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the court case," the report says.