Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama wrestled with minors crossing the U.S. border in violation of immigration laws. Here’s what has changed on this issue and who’s behind the changes.

Share story

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — This past month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of charging migrants in federal criminal court before their cases reach immigration court. When adults are taken to court, they are separated from their children, who are sent to shelters.

Immigrant advocates have sued the government to stop the practice, and critics have called it cruel and inhumane. Here’s a guide to key issues concerning family separations.

Q. Trump administration officials, from Sessions to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have said immigrant families are being separated because it’s the law — what law are they referring to?

A. They’re referring to Title 8 of U.S. Code 1325 and 1326. Federal district courts in border cities such as McAllen, Texas, are now packed with migrants charged with 1325, illegal entry, a misdemeanor, or 1326, illegal re-entry, a felony. The misdemeanor charge carries a potential six-month sentence, but most people are sentenced to time served. The felony charge carries a sentence of up to two years.

Q. Is charging immigrants in criminal court new?

A. No. They have been charged, jailed, shackled, taken to court, convicted and sentenced en masse on some stretches of the border since 2005 through a Department of Homeland Security effort called Operation Streamline. At a court in the west Texas town of Pecos this past fall, dozens of Central American men in orange jumpsuits, shackled together, listened on headsets as a translator explained that they were collectively being charged, convicted and sentenced.

What’s new is making no exceptions and charging all adults, including parents. Such prosecutions, which started this past year in Arizona and El Paso, Texas, are now done borderwide, with the greatest impact in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where most immigrants cross into the United States.

The goal is to eventually deter migrants, officials said. “There is a straight cause-and-effect with this. The number of (unaccompanied minors) and families has grown dramatically over the last few years because of not prosecuting family members. It’s a clear line — cause and effect. That’s why we have to do this,” a Homeland Security official said during a briefing with reporters Friday.

Q. Is the practice of separating parents and children being challenged?

A. Yes. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of a Congolese mother detained in San Diego and a Brazilian mother who was charged in El Paso while their children were sent to shelters in Chicago.

This past month, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Women’s Refugee Commission, University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic and Garcia & Garcia Attorneys also filed an Emergency Request for Precautionary Measures with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of separated families. The American Immigration Lawyers Association and other groups had already complained to the Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General challenging the separations.

Q. How are migrant children separated from their parents?

A. In the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents who catch immigrant families have been advised not to separate them in the field, officials said. They wait until after they drive families to the central processing center in McAllen.

Parents have complained to immigrant-rights groups that authorities don’t explain what’s happening or are deceptive. The Texas Civil Rights Project has documented cases of parents who said they were told their children were being taken for a bath at the processing center. Instead, the children were separated from the parents. Federal public defenders said they have heard similar accounts.

Parents who appeared in federal court in McAllen earlier this month appeared confused about where their children had been taken, why and whether they would be reunified. When they asked the judge and Border Patrol agents for clarity, they did not receive answers.

Homeland Security officials denied Friday that information was withheld from immigrants. Officials said that before parents in the Rio Grande Valley are taken from the processing center to court they are given flyers explaining the family-separation process in English and Spanish. The parents are also allowed to see their children before they leave for court and detention, officials said.

“Accusations of surreptitious efforts to separate are completely false,” a Homeland Security official said.

Q. Are immigrant children being held on the border — where temperatures often climb past 100 in the summer — in tents?

A. This past week, Health and Human Services opened what it called a “soft-sided” and “semi-permanent” shelter for 360 unaccompanied minors outside El Paso in Tornillo, Texas. Immigrant advocates decried the desert shelter as a “tent city.” Similar facilities were erected after an influx of Central American families arrived in the United States in 2014, but they were later dismantled. Health and Human Services is also considering whether to open temporary shelters at military bases near the border, as it did in 2012.

Q. Has separating families discouraged immigration?

A. It’s too soon to say. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that because it can take Central Americans about a month to journey with a smuggler to the border, the impact of the new policy is unclear.

The number of immigrants who sought asylum or were caught crossing the southern border in May — 51,912 — is about the same as the totals for the previous two months.

Overall, the number of families caught crossing has actually increased 17 percent in the past six months, and by 37 percent in the busy Rio Grande Valley, according to Border Patrol figures.

Q. How many children have been separated from their parents on the border, and where do they go?

A. A total of 1,995 children have been separated from 1,940 adult guardians who were prosecuted for entering the country illegally from April 19 to May 31, officials said Friday.

Children held by Border Patrol must be turned over within 72 hours to Health and Human Services (HHS), whose Office of Refugee Resettlement places them in shelters. HHS contracts with 100 shelters in 17 states. They now house 11,432 migrant children.

Adults charged in federal court are transferred to the custody of U.S. marshals, held at adult detention facilities, local jails and, as of this month, federal prisons.