White House considers resuming family separations
Those caught at border would be given choice between detention, being split up
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 asylumseeking families together for up to 20 days, then give parents a choice — stay in family detention with their child for months or years as their immigration case proceeds, or allow 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 the president’s frustration over
border security. President Donald Trump has been unable to fulfill key promises to build a border wall and end what he calls “catch and release,” a process that began 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 a record level, according to Department of Homeland Security 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 that 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 for tougher 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.
While some inside the White House and the Department of Homeland Security are concerned about the “optics” and political blowback of renewed separations, Miller and others are determined to act, according to 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 logistical and legal 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 Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers struggled to keep track of separated parents and children.
The Trump administration believes it is on solid legal ground, according to two officials, in part because U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the government to reunite separated families in June, approved the binarychoice approach in one of his rulings. But a Congressional Research Service report last month said “practical and legal barriers” remain to using that approach in the future and said releasing families together in the United States is “the only clearly viable option under current law.”
Administration officials said the CRS report cited earlier legal rulings. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which launched the separations lawsuit, disputed that interpretation and said it would oppose any attempt at expanded family detentions or separations.
“The government need not, and legally may not, indiscriminately detain families who present no flight risk or danger,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said in an email. “It is deeply troubling that this Administration continues to look for ways to cause harm to small children.”
Another hurdle is that the government does not have 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 would opt to remain with their children.
But Trump said in his June 20 executive order halting family separations that the administration’s policy is to keep parents and children together, “including by detaining” them. In recent weeks, federal officials have taken steps to expand their ability to do that.
In addition to considering “binary choice” and other options, officials have proposed new rules that would allow them to withdraw from a 1997 federal court agreement that bars ICE from keeping children in custody for more than 20 days.
Two young mothers from Honduras and their children are detained by Border Patrol agents after rafting across the Rio Grande in Granjeno, Texas, in June.