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ACLU: U.S. has taken nearly 1,000 child migrants from their parents since judge ordered stop to border separations

A migrant family walks toward an area near the Anzalduas International Bridge in McAllen, Tex., where U.S. Border Patrol agents were to begin processing them after they arrived from Mexico on June 20. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge Tuesday that the Trump administration has taken nearly 1,000 migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since the judge ordered the United States government to curtail the practice more than a year ago.

In a lengthy court filing in U.S. District Court in San Diego, lawyers wrote that one migrant lost his daughter because a U.S. Border Patrol agent claimed that he had failed to change the girl’s diaper. Another migrant lost his child because of a conviction on a charge of malicious destruction of property with alleged damage of $5. One father, who lawyers say has a speech impediment, was separated from his 4-year-old son because he could not clearly answer Customs and Border Protection agents’ questions.

Acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan has said that family separations remain “extraordinarily rare” and happen only when the adults pose a risk to the child because of their criminal record, a communicable disease, abuse or neglect. Of tens of thousands of children taken into custody at the border, 911 children were separated since the June 26, 2018, court order according to the ACLU, which cited statistics as of June 29 that the organization received from the government as part of ongoing legal proceedings.

During a July 12 tour of a detention center in McAllen, Tex., reporters saw almost 400 men being held in cages. They allegedly crossed the border illegally. (Video: The Washington Post)

While the judge recognized that parents and children might still be separated when a parent is found to pose a risk to their child, the ACLU and others say federal immigration and border agents are splitting up families for minor alleged offenses — including traffic violations — and urged the judge Tuesday to clarify when such separations should be allowed.

Approximately 20 percent of the new separations affected children under 5 years old, the ACLU said, compared with about 4 percent last year.

“They’re taking what was supposed to be a narrow exception for cases where the parent was genuinely a danger to the child and using it as a loophole to continue family separation,” ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said in an interview. “What everyone understands intuitively and what the medical evidence shows, this will have a devastating effect on the children and possibly cause permanent damage to these children, not to mention the toll on the parents.”

The Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment Tuesday.

The tally of child separations adds to the approximately 2,700 children who were taken from their parents during a chaotic, six-week period from May to June 20 last year, when a Trump administration border crackdown triggered one of the worst crises of his presidency.

The policy sought to deter a crush of asylum seekers, who were surrendering as families at the U.S. southern border, by prosecuting parents for the crime of illegal entry and sending their children to federal shelters. Reports of traumatized, crying children led to widespread demands to reunite the families.

Trump ordered federal officials to stop separating families on June 20, 2018, and said it is the “policy of this Administration to maintain family unity” unless the parent poses “a risk” to the child.

Six days later in San Diego, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ordered the Trump administration to reunite the families, a process that dragged on for months because the government had failed to track the parents and children after splitting them up. A still-unknown number of families were separated before the policy officially began.

McAleenan, who at the time signed off on the zero tolerance policy and carried it out as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in May that family separations are “extraordinarily rare” and make up a tiny portion of the now more than 400,000 families taken into custody at the border since the court ruling.

At that time, he testified, about one to three family separations happened out of about 1,500 to 3,000 family members apprehended each day. He also said then that separations occur “under very controlled circumstances.”

Testifying before the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 18, McAleenan emphasized that the separation process is “carefully governed by policy and by court order” to protect the children.

“This is in the interest of the child,” he said. “It’s overseen by a supervisor, and those decisions are made.”

Of the 911 child separations, 678 were for alleged criminal history, the ACLU said Tuesday, citing government records. Offenses included drunken driving, assault and gang affiliation, as well as theft, disorderly conduct and minor property damage.

Many cases lacked details about the alleged crimes, the ACLU said, and several charges were decades old. Among those separated because of concerns about parental fitness were an HIV-positive father of three young daughters and a mother who broke her leg and required surgery.

Child advocates and medical professionals have repeatedly warned that separating children from their parents can lead to lasting severe physical and emotional disorders.

Jennifer Nagda, policy director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a child advocate for unaccompanied and separated children, told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform that the group represented about 120 children and found that nearly all separations were “contrary to the best interests of the child.”

“DHS officials with no child welfare expertise are making split-second decisions, and these decisions have traumatic, lifelong consequences for the children and their families,” Nagda said in her testimony. She also filed an affidavit in the ACLU’s case Tuesday.