President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he is not considering reinstating his “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that saw families separated at the border. The president reiterated his claim that former President Barack Obama had actually done the same. Trump said that in fact the policy of separating children from their families at the border started during the Obama administration and that it was Trump who actually stopped it through an executive order.
But this claim is not entirely true. Under the Obama administration, children were separated from their parents when there were concerns for their wellbeing and the authorities could not ascertain whether the people accompanying them were their parents or guardians. It was not a blanket policy like the one implemented by the current White House. The crisis started last year in spring when the Trump administration made a few changes to the status quo policy that was inherited from Obama.
The White House wanted to ramp up strict enforcement of immigration laws that were already in the books. The US has often prosecuted illegal crossers in the past and this meant that they had to be separated from their families as they underwent the legal due process. However, experts note that there’s a big difference between how separations were done in previous administrations and how the Trump administration is doing it. First, under the Obama administration, the Justice Department was given explicit directions on who should face criminal charges at the border and federal prosecutor rarely went after families.
But in April 2018, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive noting that 100% of all illegal border crossers would be prosecuted in what he termed as a “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration. Adults caught with the new policy in force went to jail as they awaited their trial and their children were held by the Department of Health and Human Services. Some children were eventually placed under foster care. In essence, these changes meant that anyone who was caught crossing the border would face criminal charges. As a result, thousands of people were picked up and sent in jails. If they had kids with them, the children were taken and detained. Thousands of children were held away from their parents in a move that caused nationwide uproar.
The Trump administration removed the zero-tolerance policy through an executive order but the president has never owned up to it. In fact, he even claimed that the cages in some of the detention facilities used to hold migrant children were built by Obama. Although technically this is true, the facilities were built as enclosures for migrants as they waited for processing, not for children. However, the Trump administration continued to use the chain link fencing enclosures to hold kids.
Trump also claimed that the end of the zero-tolerance policy has led to a sharp increase in illegal border crossings. This is true but this is because the demographics of people trying to enter the US have changed massively. Unlike in the past where crossers were largely male individuals, in recent years there has been a surge in families coming from Central America.