March 10, 2021 Feature

How U.S. Policy Has Failed Immigrant Children: Family Separation in the Obama and Trump Eras

Claudio J. Perez

Introduction

In 2018, U.S. citizens and people across the globe decried President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting separation of children from their families, but some may be surprised to learn that President Barack Obama also separated families at the Mexican border. During the Obama Administration, U.S. immigration policy required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to process immigration violations as civil violations, but after President Trump’s executive order to federal prosecutors, those crossing the border without inspection were charged with criminal offenses. Undocumented border crossers with children were then moved to criminal detention facilities where their children were not allowed to be held. This resulted in an unprecedented number of family separations at the U.S. border. President Trump built upon the immigration policies of his predecessors in such a manner that the Fifth Amendment right to family integrity—which extends to all people, not just American citizens—was violated time and time again as families were separated at the border. Furthermore, these criminal prosecutions also arguably violated the constitutional rights of migrant parents seeking asylum. As a result, hundreds of children suffered psychological damage that, according to medical professionals, will be difficult if not impossible to reverse.

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