On June 20, after weeks of protests and public outrage, President Donald Trump signed an executive order walking back the zero tolerance immigration policy his administration had implemented months earlier, which resulted in the separations of thousands of families. An investigation by ProPublica has since discovered, however, that separations haven’t halted completely.
According to the report, Catholic Charities, a New York-based organization that provides legal services to immigrant children, has discovered at least 16 separation cases that occurred after June 20. Lawyers came across the cases after analyzing the records of young children placed into temporary or foster care who were categorized as having crossed the border without their parents.
One of those children is 4-year-old Brayan, who crossed the border in mid-September with his father Julio. Brayan was forcibly separated from his father by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents after Julio asked for asylum, fleeing gang violence in El Salvador.
“I failed him,” Julio told ProPublica through tears. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”
CBP agents claimed that they were required to separate the father and son because Julio’s background check showed he had a confirmed history of gang affiliation with MS-13. CBP did not provide evidence supporting Julio’s involvement with the gang to either ProPublica or Julio’s own lawyer.
When Julio arrived at the border with his son, he had a letter from a lawyer in El Salvador explaining the pair’s history of being targeted and harassed by gangs. Julio also had with him sworn statements from his former employer vouching for his character and stating he was not involved in any gang activity.
It is highly unlikely that Julio is involved in MS-13, considering the gang’s endgame has never been to foil U.S. immigration law. As ProPublica reported in June, there have been fewer than 200 cases of false family claims this year; of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors that have arrived in the United States since 2012, the outlet wrote, Border Patrol says only 56 were suspected of MS-13 ties.
But Border Patrol officials claim they were justified in separating Julio and Brayan. While the separation had nothing to do with the now-defunct zero-tolerance policy, they argued, U.S. federal judge Dana Sabraw — who ruled this summer that the government was responsible for reuniting migrant families — made exceptions in his decision for cases where the parent had a criminal history or if the child’s safety was at risk.
The claim is hardly surprising to immigration advocates, who say law enforcement officials are finding any justification they can to separate families in the absence of a zero-tolerance policy and exploiting loopholes wherever possible.
Lawyers for Catholic Charities believe that may have been the case for the roughly 16 children between the ages of 2 and 17 they identified. Because these separations occurred after the zero-tolerance policy was suspended, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wasn’t required to flag these cases for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sued the government for its draconian family separation policy.
“If the government is still secretly separating children, and is doing so based on flimsy excuses, that would be patently unconstitutional and we will be back in court,” said Lee Gelernt, lead attorney in the ACLU lawsuit.
That the government has found a way to navigate Trump’s zero-tolerance policy reversal is further proof that anti-immigrant sentiment is deeply ingrained within the administration. Whether it’s by restricting access to public programs for legal immigrants or making asylum seeking nearly impossible, officials have made it their mission to limit immigration as much as possible — no matter the potential legal ramifications.