Children Are Still Being Separated from Their Families at the Border

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jun 23, 2022

United States immigration law allows people who are fleeing violence and persecution to request asylum at or near the border. And in a shameful chapter of our recent history, the United States intentionally separated children from their parents to deter families from exercising this right.

Though family separation is no longer explicitly used as a weapon in U.S. immigration policy, it is still a horrifying result. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of children have come to the United States without their parents, and we have not built a system to receive them with compassion and respect. In fiscal year 2021, a record 122,000 children were taken into U.S. custody without their parents. But far too many of them could have safely remained with their parents or other family members if the United States had better systems, policies, and practices.

One problem is that Title 42 is still being used to expel adult asylum seekers. During the pandemic, the Trump administration exploited a little-known clause in public health law as a pretext to deny asylum seekers entry to the United States. The Biden administration exempted unaccompanied children from Title 42 but is still using the statue to expel children who arrive as part of a family unit. As a result, many parents who arrived at the border with their children and were sent back to Mexico were forced to make the difficult decision to send their children back to the United States alone so they could present themselves as unaccompanied, rather than have them stay in dangerous border encampments. In fiscal year 2021, 12,212 migrating children reentered the United States alone after having been expelled from the country with their families under Title 42. These separations are traumatic and unnecessary. Families should be allowed to request asylum together.

Children who have fled violence, natural disasters, and other horrible circumstances and have been entrusted to the care of aunts, uncles, cousins, older siblings, and other family members are also often separated from caregivers who are not their parents. Human Rights Watch has recorded heartbreaking testimony from children like a 14-year-old boy who had traveled from Guatemala with his 29-year-old sister and her son. When they approached border patrol to seek asylum, they were detained in separate cages. “On the third day they took me out of my cage and said I would be separated from my sister, but they didn’t tell me where I was going. I don’t understand why they separated us. They didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye,” he said. No one should be treated like this. All people seeking refuge in the United States deserve dignity and compassion.

Improving how family relationships are evaluated can spare many children needless pain. Under current practice, children who arrive in the United States without their parents—like the boy from Guatemala—are taken to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing centers. But it doesn’t make sense to send children to the care of a law enforcement agency that has no expertise in child welfare. Children have endured horrible mistreatment in CBP custody. Its jail-like facilities are no place for them.

After passing through CBP custody, children who arrive without their parents are then transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities around the country. In some cases, they end up hundreds of miles away and the relatives who brought them to the United States are given no information about their whereabouts and no way to contact them. This experience is terrifying, completely unnecessary, and very harmful. Pediatricians and psychologists report that such early traumatic experiences can disrupt the building of children’s brain architecture, causing them lifelong harm problems.

A better system would place ORR officials at the border to immediately evaluate family relationships. This should be done in trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate settings, rather than in jail-like holding centers. Medical and mental health services that children might need should also be available on site. If ORR confirms the family relationship and rules out risks of trafficking and other immediate dangers to the child, children should be released with their relatives immediately.

For the past decade, difficult conditions around the world have propelled the migration of families to the United States, which remains a beacon of hope for people who are fleeing violence, persecution, and instability. Children who arrive here seeking safety should not endure additional trauma at the hands of the U.S. government. Policymakers need to create a system that protects children and keeps families together.