U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy of forcibly separating children from migrant parents who seek asylum in the nation is drawing outrage from human rights organizations, the UN and even members from his own party.
The “zero tolerance” policy introduced in May sees adults who try to cross into the U.S. illegally, many of whom plan to seek asylum, placed in custody and undergo criminal prosecution.
As the adults are being charged, their children are then separated and deemed to be unaccompanied minors.
But the policy is facing mounting criticism, even from first lady Melania Trump, who said she “hates” to see families separated at the border and hopes Republicans and Democrats can reform the U.S. immigration laws.
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On Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights official called on Trump administration to halt its “unconscionable” policy, saying it punishes “children for their parent’s action.”
So what is the immigration policy and why is it happening now?
The policy does not state that every family entering the U.S. illegally has to be separated.
It does say that all adults crossing into the U.S. without documents will be criminally prosecuted — but not the children.
Once the parents are taken in for prosecution, the children are held in government facilities and then released to adult sponsors or placed in temporary foster care.
Administration officials have defended the tactic as necessary to secure the border and suggested it would act as a deterrent to a surge of illegal immigration.
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The “zero-tolerance” policy was put through in May, which means any migrant crossing the border beyond the official ports of entry will face criminal prosecution, including asylum seekers with children.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during the announcement.
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Although it was implemented last month, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration started to increase prosecution of illegal entry and separating families at the border in October 2017.
Unauthorized border crossing into the U.S. has always been illegal, but previous administrations did not criminally prosecute all border crossers the way the Trump administration has.
For example, in 2005, the Bush administration started Operation Streamline, a program that referred all illegal immigrants for prosecution, but made an exception for adults travelling with children.
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The Obama administration used that model as well, but detained families together in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from adults at the U.S.-Mexico border between mid-April and the end of May, according to the U.S. officials — and the Trump administration is now hoping to enforce even stricter border enforcement policies.
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According to a report by the Washington Examiner, a source said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been taking in about 250 children per day in recent weeks. HHS is the agency that is taking in children when they are separated from their families.
The HHS official said that as of Friday, HHS was already holding 11,500 children, which means the total could hit 30,000 by August, the Examiner said.
The policy has drawn condemnation from medical professionals, religious leaders and immigration activists, calling the separation cruel and un-American, as well as warning that some children could suffer lasting psychological trauma.
There are many reports that children are being taken from mothers, and that distraught toddlers and elementary school-age children are asking, through tears, when they can see their parents.
Democrats have also accused the president of effectively turning the children into political hostages to secure stricter immigration measures, such as funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Trump has sought to blame Democrats, saying their support for passage of a broader immigration bill would end the separations. He also said that “separating families at the border is the fault of bad legislation by the Democrats.”
However, there is no law that requires immigrant families to be separated. The decision to charge everyone who crosses the border illegally is a decision the Trump administration made (and could end).
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday: “As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience, … I will tell you that nobody likes this policy.”
“You saw the president (say) on camera that he wants this to end,” she added.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, former first lady Laura Bush, wife of the previous Republican president, George W. Bush, said she lives in a border state and appreciates the need to enforce and protect the U.S. borders.
“But this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” Bush wrote, adding the images were “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
Former Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci says it “doesn’t feel right” for the Trump administration to blame Democrats for separating parents and children at the southern border as a way of pressuring Democrats into negotiating on a Republican immigration bill.
WATCH: White House answers questions about separating families at the border
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she favours tighter border security, but expressed deep concerns about the child separation policy.
“What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you,” she said. “That’s traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.”
Immigration on the southwest border has remained high since the zero-tolerance policies took effect. Border agents made more than 50,000 arrests in May, up slightly from a month earlier and more than twice the number in May 2017. About a quarter of arrests were families travelling with children.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press
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