Family separations at border again possible
Migrants also could have option of being detained together
WASHINGTON — The White House is actively considering plans that could again separate parents and children at the U.S.Mexico border, hoping to reverse soaring numbers of families attempting to cross illegally into the United States, according to several administration officials with direct knowledge of the effort.
One option under consideration is for the government to detain asylum-seeking families together for up to 20 days, then give parents a choice: Stay in family detention with your child for months or years as your immigration case proceeds, or allow your children to be taken to a government shelter so other relatives or guardians can seek custody.
That option, called “binary choice,” is one of several under consideration amid President Donald Trump’s frustration over border security. He has been unable to fulfill key promises to build a border wall and end what he calls “catch and release,” a process begun under past administrations, in which most detained families are quickly freed to await immigration hearings. The number of migrant family members arrested and charged with illegally crossing the border jumped 38 percent in August and is now at record levels, according to Homeland Security Department officials.
Senior administration officials say they are not planning to revive the chaotic forced separations carried out by the Trump administration in May and June, which spawned an enormous political backlash and led to a court order to reunite families.
But they feel compelled to do something, and officials say senior White House adviser Stephen Miller is advocating tough measures because he believes the springtime separations worked as an effective deterrent to illegal crossings.
At least 2,500 children were taken from their parents over a period of six weeks. Crossings by families declined slightly in May, June and July before surging again in August. September numbers are expected to be even higher.
Whereas some inside the White House and the Homeland Security Department are concerned about the “optics” and political blowback of renewed separations, Miller and others are determined to act, according to several officials briefed on the deliberations. There have been several high-level meetings in the White House in recent weeks about the issue. The “binary choice” option is seen as one that could be tried out fairly quickly.
“Career law enforcement professionals in the U.S. government are working to analyze and evaluate options that would protect the American people, prevent the horrific actions of child smuggling, and stop drug cartels from pouring into our communities,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in an emailed statement.
Any effort to expand family detentions and resume separations would face multiple hurdles.
It would require overcoming the communication and data management failures that plagued the first effort, when Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and Health and Human Services Department caseworkers struggled to keep track of separated parents and children scattered across the U.S.
Lawyers have also raised questions about the legality of splitting up families, even if parents sign waivers to do so. A Congressional Research Service report last month said releasing families together in the U.S. is “the only clearly viable option under current law.”
Another hurdle is that the government lacks detention space for a large number of additional families. ICE has three “family residential centers” with a combined capacity of roughly 3,000 parents and children. With more than four times that many arriving each month, it is unclear where the government would hold all the parents who choose to remain with their children.
But Trump said in a June 20 executive order halting family separations that the administration’s policy is to keep parents and children together, “including by detaining” them.
Asylum-seeking migrants line up at a border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, in June. Over 90,000 adults with children were caught at the Southwest border last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.