The Trump administration was separating migrant families months earlier than previously realised, a report says.
The separations were taking place along a desolate part of the US-Mexico border as part of a programme only coming to light now as the Biden administration is reviewing government data, The Washington Post reported.
The Border Patrol began instituting protocols following the “Criminal Consequence Initiative” in Yuma, Arizona in May 2017.
The programme made it possible to prosecute migrants crossing the border for the first time, including parents who were separated from their children as they entered the US.
In some cases, lawyers from the Justice Department cited the Criminal Consequence Initiative programme in court when they were prosecuting migrant parents. Border Patrol agents used the programme as a justification for separating families, according to The Post.
Recently released data from the Department of Homeland Security shows that 234 families were separated between 1 July and 21 December 2017.
But US Customs and Border Protection couldn’t confirm in a statement that the Criminal Consequence Initiative programme led to separations.
“Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector carried out a prosecution initiative beginning in May 2017,” the agency said. “However, Border Patrol is unable to definitively link the Yuma Sector prosecution initiative to the 234 cases of in-scope family separations listed in the DHS Family Reunification Progress Report.”
But because the programme in Yuma began in May and the data on family separations began in July, the number of separated families is likely higher, something that the Biden administration is looking into.
Some families separated in Yuma four years ago have still not been reunited. Some parents are missing after being deported alone. According to government data, some of the children separated from their parents in Yuma were as young as 10 months old.
Despite that the official Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy was only in place from April to June 2018, it’s now becoming apparent that along parts of the border, family separations started almost a year before that.
According to DHS, more than 5,600 families were separated between mid-2017 and mid-2018. Parents from at least 22 countries and five continents were separated from their children. Many came from Central America, but some were also from the Congo, Kyrgyzstan and Hungary.
The data from Yuma were identified by the Biden administration as it attempts to reunify families that were torn apart. The geographic span of where families were separated is much broader than previously realised.
The family separation policy ended in June 2018 after a court order. Despite three internal reports and several congressional hearings, the data from Yuma was not revealed until last month.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed for the prosecution of first-time border crossers.
Yuma County Public Defender Nora Nuñez defended many separated parents and remembers it as being “pretty horrible”.
“It was a very dramatic increase very quickly,” she told the Post about the time around May 2017.
After the programme was started, the Border Patrol’s apprehension paperwork made clear that parents needed to be separated from their kids so that the parents could be prosecuted.
“Suddenly, I was getting tons of them, often several a day,” Ms Nuñez said. “My thought was that maybe it was a test run.”
Those working on reuniting the families were surprised by how many different parts of the world the families came from.
According to DHS, they came from more expected countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but also from Angola, Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, the Congo, Ecuador, Hungary, India, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, Romania, Russia, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
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