Trump Administration Considers Separating Families to Combat Illegal Immigration

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The Trump administration is considering a plan to separate parents from their children when families are caught entering the country illegally, according to officials who have been briefed on the plans. The forceful move is meant to discourage border crossings, but immigrant groups have denounced it as draconian and inhumane.

Under current policy, families are kept intact while awaiting a decision on whether they will be deported; they are either held in special family detention centers or released with a court date. The policy under discussion would send parents to adult detention facilities, while their children would be placed in shelters designed for juveniles or with a “sponsor,” who could be a relative in the United States, though the administration may also tighten rules on sponsors.

The policy is favored by the White House, and has been approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to three officials at the Department of Homeland Security and one at the White House who have all been briefed on the proposal but declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. The officials said that the new Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who has final approval power, has yet to sign off on the proposal.

The debate comes as the administration faces an influx of people crossing the southern United States border illegally. As soon as President Trump took office, the number of people caught crossing the border dropped sharply, a sign that far fewer people were even trying. Only 11,677 apprehensions were recorded in April, the lowest number in a least 17 years, according to Customs and Border Protection.

Administration officials heralded the drop as a “Trump effect,” with his tough talk on illegal immigration and a surge in immigration arrestsdiscouraging Mexicans and Central Americans from making the journey.

But the number of people caught has been on the rise, reaching 29,086 in November, the most since January, a trend that has worried some administration officials and is weighing on the decision to separate parents from children. That month, 7,000 “family units” were apprehended, as well as 4,000 “unaccompanied minors,” or children traveling without an adult relative.

This fall, the White House convened a group of officials from two of its own offices — the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council — as well as from Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the State Department, to look into ways to curtail border crossings, particularly those of children. The family separation policy, which was reported on Thursday by The Washington Post, is among the solutions being considered.

The vexing question of how to stem the flow of migrants into the country has frustrated the White House, under both Democratic and Republican control, for years. Former President Barack Obama tried to do it by fast-tracking some deportations and by starting a media campaign in Central America to warn people about the dangers of the journey to the United States. But both of those measures were largely unsuccessful, and crossings reached unprecedented levels during the Obama presidency.

Previous administrations have stopped short of resorting to policies like family separation, because of concerns that it could force people into the hands of dangerous smugglers who sell themselves as a way to evade the Border Patrol, or force people with legitimate claims for asylum to remain in life-threatening situations in their home countries.

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