More than a year after the Trump administration quietly began a program of separating migrant children from their families along the U.S.-Mexico border, the full number of people impacted remains unclear. According to a new report, however, the government’s own data indicates that the campaign was far more expansive — and far more destructive — than previously acknowledged.
Figures provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection detail the separation of 6,022 “family units” from April 19, 2018 to August 15, 2018, according to a report published by Amnesty International on Thursday. Noting that the term “family unit” has varying applications in the U.S. immigration enforcement world — sometimes referring to individuals in a family, and other times referring to family groups containing multiple people — Amnesty observes that even on the low end, the figure reflects the largest total ever disclosed by the border enforcement agency in the context of the family separation crisis.
Using available statistics from the last two years, Amnesty further reports that in 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration appears to have separated approximately 8,000 “family units” along the border. Even if half of the people referred to in that figure were parents, the remaining 4,000 children would dwarf the total number of kids commonly reported to have been impacted by the “zero tolerance” campaign — that total tends to hover between 2,500 to 3,000.
The numbers are admittedly murky, said Brian Griffey, the author of the Amnesty report. But that’s because the agency that provided them — CBP — refused to provide any clarification as to what, exactly, they reflected. Conversations with the border enforcement agency continued into last week, Griffey told The Intercept in an interview on Tuesday. The closest Amnesty could get to a clarification on the “family unit” question, Griffey said, was a claim from CBP that the 6,022 figure “appeared” to refer to individuals. According to the Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP, “family unit” apprehensions refer to the individual count of each family member.
“They have to come clean,” Griffey said. “It requires a congressional inquiry, that’s our view.”
CBP did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Katie Waldman, a DHS spokesperson, mischaracterized Amnesty’s findings in her emails to The Intercept and, despite repeated follow-ups, did not explain the disparity between the numbers provided by CBP and those previously acknowledged by authorities, including in response to the Ms L v. ICE class-action lawsuit. Instead, Waldman issued the following statement: “This is a deeply flawed, inaccurate report authored by an open-borders activist group. In fact, many of its so-called ‘findings’ contradict data provided in federal court by the government, the ACLU, and Judge [Dana] Sabraw. It is not even remotely credible and should not be treated as such. Individuals looking for an accurate accounting of the Administration’s Zero Tolerance efforts should examine the Ms L court filings which identified 103 children between the ages of 0 and 4 who are potential class members and 2,551 children between the ages of 5 and 17 who are potential class members.” Asked for clarification on what specific parts of the report were inaccurate and misleading, given that Amnesty based much of its findings on data provided by CBP, she simply resent her agency’s original statement with no additional information.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of minors once they are separated from their families, did not answer The Intercept’s questions besides providing generic links to its website.
As Amnesty’s report makes clear, family separation numbers are but the most well-known piece of a much larger story, one in which the Trump administration has waged a systematic, multi-pronged, and frequently illegal attack on some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants and the systems designed to protect them. Asylum-seekers, the report finds, have borne the brunt of this assault, being illegally turned away from lawful ports of entry — with the cooperation, in some cases, of Mexican authorities — and held in indefinite detention. The report also details the cases of asylum-seekers who had their children taken from them, experiencing what Amnesty says amounts to torture.
Even as family separations have receded from the headlines after the full-blown scandal of this summer, the Amnesty report underlines what’s still unknown about the true impact and timeline of the policy. As Amnesty documents, the president and his closest advisers have routinely relied on dehumanizing rhetoric in reference to immigrants, particularly asylum-seekers, and devised strategies clearly designed to terrify them away from coming to the United States. At the same time, the administration has provided little guidance to DHS agencies in implementing these orders. The result, frequently, has been chaos. Griffey attributes it to what he calls a “confluence of malice and incompetence.”
“You never know if it’s one or the other or just both,” he said.
The number of families, children, and adults that U.S. authorities have separated during, as well as before and possibly after, the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy have remained the subject of confusion, contradicting statements, and differing definitions by the various agencies in charge. But the Amnesty report makes clear that, even with the most conservative interpretation of the data officials have made public, the total number of separations is a lot higher than previously reported.
Last September, after disavowing earlier figures, CBP told Amnesty that it had separated 6,022 “family units” between April 19 and August 15, 2018. CBP did not offer Amnesty further clarification about that data, and it did not specify how many — if any — separations occurred after Donald Trump signed an executive order supposedly putting an end to the practice on June 20. A month later, Griffey says, CBP suggested, though it did not confirm, that the “family unit” figure it had provided to the human rights organization appeared to refer to individuals who had arrived as part of a family. As the Amnesty report notes, the ambiguity appears to be motivated, at least in part, by politics. “The use of ‘family units’ to mean individual people who arrive with families, rather than their whole family groups, conflicts with the definition of the term under DHS policies, and may be intended to inflate the apparent number of families seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, for political purposes,” the report notes. As The Intercept has reported, CBP is known to have manipulated statistics in the past, in order to score political points.
“They didn’t even know what that stats mean that they’re giving us,” said Griffey. “It’s ambiguous. And it’s frustrating.”
After repeatedly asking for clarification, Griffey said that CBP told him that the information would take a few weeks. “I don’t have the luxury of that. No one does. These are human beings we’re talking about,” Griffey told The Intercept. “They should be able to break that down by the month, by the number of kids, by the number of adults, etc., and then by the grounds for which they were separated. They seem very casual about the whole thing.”
The new figure provided to Amnesty conflicts with earlier numbers given by the administration, which were also incomplete and often confusing. With no clarity coming from authorities, and agencies like CBP and ORR — which took custody of separated children — offering different numbers and definitions, reporters and rights groups have been left scrambling to cobble together the total number of children impacted by the policy.
For instance, CBP said in June that 2,342 children had been separated between May 5 and June 9, while other officials said 1,995 children were separated between April and May. Combining administration statements with other figures from the government about children who were separated in the months before “zero tolerance” became official, The Intercept tallied in June that 3,700 children had been separated up to that point. But when Trump signed his executive order in June ending the policy, the official number that circulated was 2,600.
Of the unknown number of total children impacted by the policy, 2,654, including 103 under the age of 5, have qualified for the Ms L lawsuit, one of several around the issue of family separations. Of those children, 136 children, including three under the age of 5, remained in ORR custody as of late September, along with 219 children, including 12 under the age of 5, whose parents do not qualify for that class status.
To complicate the matter further, CBP is now saying that the statistics it has provided do not include what it considers “fraudulent” cases — by which it means not those lying about their status as relatives, but relatives other than parents, like grandparents or parents who do not have documentation to prove their relation to their children or whose documentation CBP was unable to verify. In fact, while the Trump administration has often referred to the trafficking of children across the border to justify its policy, DHS’s own figures suggest that traffickers account for only 0.1 percent of asylum-seekers.
The Amnesty report describes an orchestrated campaign by the administration to seek “the full dismantling of the U.S. asylum system”: discouraging asylum-seekers with the threat of family separation, detaining asylum-seekers while their claims are heard in substandard conditions where they are incentivized to give up and agree to leave – and seeking to rewrite longstanding policy to make it harder for people to request asylum directly at the border.
“These are not isolated aberrations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented these interrelated policies in unison,” the report says. “The Trump administration is waging a deliberate campaign of human rights violations against asylum-seekers, in order to broadcast globally that the United States no longer welcomes refugees.”
The report also provides new firsthand accounts of how U.S. border officials have prevented asylum-seekers from crossing legally at ports of entry in order to make their claims, forcing them back into dangerous cities in Mexico. Mexican immigration officials described how the U.S. has enlisted Mexican authorities in that effort — encouraging them to check the status, detain, and possibly deport asylum-seekers that the Border Patrol had turned away from U.S. ports of entry.
This practice has been reported since Trump took office, but Amnesty argues that since April 2018, when “zero tolerance” began, “U.S. authorities have more systematically conducted mass illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.” Their finding comes after a DHS inspector general report last week, which also concluded that U.S. border officials had prevented asylum-seekers from presenting themselves lawfully at ports of entry, and in doing so, had pushed people to cross illegally.
In a practice they call “metering,” border officials block asylum-seekers from physically reaching U.S. soil, saying that border stations are at capacity and that the migrants seeking protection will have to wait in line or come back later. Amnesty, however, points out that overall border crossings by people without status in the U.S. have been consistent over the past five years, and that CBP had previously been able to handle large numbers of asylum-seekers. The agency has refused to provide statistics on the actual number of people supposedly flooding their gates.
The long queues and encampments on the Mexican side of the border leave asylum-seekers from Central America, Africa, and elsewhere vulnerable not just to crime and punishing heat, but also to being deported from Mexico. And according to Mexican immigration authorities quoted in the Amnesty report, CBP has implicitly encouraged them to do just that.
In June, for instance, a senior Mexican immigration official in Sonora said that “U.S. officials had requested INM [Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexico’s immigration agency] to detain and check the papers of the asylum-seekers whom CBP was pushing back to the Mexican side.” The official said he understood that to mean that Mexico should deport people who did not have status in Mexico. Three INM officials told a lawyer in Texas that they were screening asylum-seekers at the request of CBP, and detaining non-Mexicans without visas. “Yes, it’s a collaborative program that we’re doing with the Americans,” one official said.
An INM delegate in Baja California said that CBP had asked his agency to remove an encampment on the Mexican side of the border. The official saw the request as asking Mexico to do the U.S.’s dirty work and deport the asylum-seekers.
“Everybody knows their [transit visas] are about to expire. If I go out there right now and do an immigration sweep on the plaza,” probably 40 percent of the asylum-seekers would not have legal status, the official said.
The contentious collaboration between Mexico and U.S. immigration authorities points to another goal of the Trump administration’s attempt to remake asylum policy: getting Mexico to take on the responsibility for the Central American and other refugees presenting at the southern border. The administration has announced plans to give $20 million to Mexico to pay for the deportation of some 17,000 people, and has been been pursuing a “safe third-country agreement” that would define Mexico as a safe destination for all asylum-seekers — allowing the U.S. to turn away all but Mexican asylum-seekers and force them to seek refuge in Mexico first. Rights groups are uniformly opposed to the idea, pointing out that Mexico’s asylum system is underfunded and backlogged, wrongful deportations are common, and migrants in Mexico are at risk of discrimination, exploitation by criminal groups and corrupt government officials, sexual assault, and other abuses. Nonetheless, the U.S. has pushed to negotiate the agreement, though Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appears little inclined to support it.
“The U.S. government’s abrogation of its obligations under human rights and refugee law is undermining the international framework for refugee protection,” the report concludes, “grossly violating the right to seek asylum, and is inviting a race to the bottom by other countries.”
As it has embarked on the policies and practices detailed by Amnesty, the administration has continued to publicly maintain that asylum-seekers who present themselves legally at ports of entry will not be prosecuted and will not have their families separated. As DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in June, “They have not committed a crime by coming to the port of entry.” But at the same time, Nielsen has also said that the right to ask for asylum at ports of entry amounts to “a huge gaping loophole that we need to fix because it is so abused.” Today’s report adds to a growing mound of evidence that the administration has undertaken to fix that alleged loophole by illegal means.