Nearly 1,000 children separated from their families at the southern border by the Trump administration remain separated to this day, according to a Biden administration fact sheet released on February 2. The fact sheet marks two years since President Biden’s creation of the Interagency Task Force on Reunification of Families and shows that the devastating effects of the Trump administration’s family separation policy are far from over.
Thousands of Separated Children
According to the fact sheet, 3,924 children were separated from their parents between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021. After two years of work by the task force, over 600 children have been reunited with their families and 998 remain separated. 331 separated children are either in the process of reunification or their families have been informed of the opportunity to reunify, while over 600 children remain separated without a clear possibility for reunification.
The government noted that the number of separated families continues to grow, since families must self-identify and register through a website to begin the reunification process. The number of children who remain separated is likely greater than 1,000 because not all separated families have been identified.
A History of Family Separation
Shortly after President Trump was elected, there were reports that the new administration intended to begin separating families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to deter parents from coming to the United States. In the summer of 2017, U.S. Border Patrol agents began separating children—including infants and very young children—from their parents in increasing numbers.
In April 2018, the Trump administration formally announced a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute all adults who crossed the border without proper documents, even if they were parents with young children. Under the policy, the government took children from their parents and placed them in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Many, but not all, parents were prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry. Only in June 2018 did the government acknowledge that it had separated thousands of children under its new policy.
The government implemented the family separation policy despite being repeatedly warned that it would cause long-lasting traumatic injury to children. ORR was unprepared to handle the spike in traumatized, separated children suddenly in its care.
The government separated thousands of families without adequate systems to track the children and parents or reunite them. Children were unable to even speak to their parents for weeks or months after separation and many parents did not know where their children had been taken.
Reports of these separations—including an audio recording of recently separated children screaming for their parents—provoked public outcry.
In respond to mounting public pressure, President Trump signed an executive order purportedly ending family separation on June 20, 2018.
The government began tracking and reuniting families after a federal judge ordered it to do so on June 26, 2018. However, the government deported hundreds of parents without their children before the court’s ruling. President Biden created the Family Reunification task force in February 2021 to continue the work of reunifying families who remained separated.
Some separated families have filed lawsuits against the government seeking recompense for the psychological trauma caused by the family separation policy. The Department of Justice continues to litigate the cases after the government withdrew from settlement talks in December 2021. Despite publicly denouncing the policy, the Biden administration has continued to resist providing financial compensation to the victims of family separation.