The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘deterrent’ of separating kids from their parents isn’t deterring many migrants

Families who illegally crossed the Mexico-U.S. border turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents near McAllen, Tex., on May 9. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)
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One of the first reports that the government was separating children from their parents at the border with Mexico came from the Los Angeles Times in February.

“Thousands of parents who crossed illegally into the U.S. in recent years have been held with their children at immigration detention centers. But the case of a Brazilian woman and her son illustrates what migrant advocates call a harsher approach to immigration enforcement that aims to separate parents and children,” Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported. “The unspoken goal, advocates say, is to discourage parents from crossing illegally or attempting to request asylum.”

Stories about family separations continued to increase. By April, hundreds of children had been taken from their parents.

Early last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the government’s policy explicit. At a speech in Arizona, he spoke to those who attempted to “smuggle” children across the border: “[W]e will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR that the point was to keep people from trying to enter the country.

They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason,” he said. “But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.” He added that separating children from parents “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”

Data suggest that it hasn’t been.

President Trump has been frustrated by the rise in entry attempts along the border with Mexico, after that number sank during the first year of his presidency. In March, there were 50,296 apprehensions at the border with Mexico, up from 36,682 the month before. In April, it increased to 50,924. In May, according to new data, the number rose to 51,912.

The number of family units apprehended at the border rose from 5,474 to 8,873 in March, then to 9,653 in April before ticking slightly downward to 9,485 in May. That May figure is the highest since 2014, when violence in Central America led to a surge in border crossings. That recent increase drove a substantial part of the overall apprehensions number, which is one reason the government is apparently trying to deter families from trying to enter the United States.

Notice that, even as awareness of the new policy increased, the number of family-unit apprehensions didn’t substantially change.

Border crossings are cyclical, so data are generally compared year-over-year. In 2017, both overall and family-unit apprehensions fell relative to 2016. This year, though, the last four months have seen substantial increases over 2017.

In May, family-unit apprehensions were up 500 percent over May 2017. In part, that’s because of the drop seen in 2017. (It’s also a smaller year-over-year increase than was seen in April in part because the May 2017 number was up from April 2017.) The increase in May was up 29 percent over May 2016 and 59 percent over May 2015.

The scope of the administration’s border policy is broad. It has been applied even to people seeking asylum in the United States — a legal process by which some migrants seek entry. A key problem, as an expert familiar with the immigration process told The Post last month, is that not seeking to leave their countries of origin is a more frightening prospect than potentially being separated at the U.S. border.

“This is truly a refugee crisis,” Kids in Need of Defense president Wendy Young said. “People become refugees when they’re desperate to escape violence. The violence is throughout Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and the governments are too weak or too corrupt to control it. So people make the only choice they feel they have available, and they run.”

Trump’s policy has led to two recent condemnations in recent days.

First, the United Nations human rights office asked the administration on Tuesday to “immediately halt” the separation policy. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called the United Nations body hypocritical, given that it “ignores the reprehensible human rights records of several members of its own Human Rights Council.”

On Wednesday, a more significant threat. A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union hoping to end the policy was allowed to move forward in U.S. District Court. The judge in the case said that the policy as described in the brief was “brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency.”

Even Trump has criticized the policy, falsely claiming that it’s a function of Democratic decision-making. That public opposition to the policy, though, hasn’t led him to reverse its implementation.

Perhaps data suggesting that it doesn’t work anyway might be more effective to that end.