Before its apparent reversal, President Trump's immigration policy was on pace to put more than 19,000 migrant children in federal detention by the end of 2018, according to a Washington Post analysis.
The number of children being held by the government grew by about 62 per day since May, after Trump's policy of criminally prosecuting all first-time adult border crossers was implemented. Even assuming that the harsher policy deters would-be migrants and slows the rate of increase, the government was on track to detain an additional 1,000 children every month.
The Post's projections show the number of child migrants held in detention was on pace to grow by about 3,000 by August, by 8,000 by January, and by 11,000 by this time next year. Under this trajectory, the number of children in government detention was projected to swell to more than 23,000 by this time next year, according to The Post's analysis. The government has not released figures on how it projects the number of child migrants in its custody to increase.
The number of children being held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement climbed from about 9,600 in mid-May to about 11,500 as of last week, after the “zero tolerance” policy went into effect, according to Department of Health and Human Services statistics. Most of those children arrived at the border unaccompanied, but most of the recent growth is attributable to children separated from their parents.
Administration actions taken this week appear likely to alter these estimates, according to several immigration experts. Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to end the separation of children from their families at the border, and Customs and Border Protection officials told The Post on Thursday that they will no longer refer all intercepted adults for criminal prosecution. That change is likely to slow the dramatic surge in the number of children being separated from adults and held by the federal government, the immigration experts said.
Still, uncertainty remains as to how much the executive order signed by Trump on Wednesday will alter the rapid increase in the number of child migrants in detention. Department of Justice officials said they will continue prosecuting anyone referred to the agency for illegal entry, and they also have asked the courts to void a ruling stipulating that children can be held in family detention for only 20 days. A memo obtained by The Post on Thursday shows that the Department of Defense will make room for as many as 20,000 migrant children on military bases.
Without additional measures, the increase in the number of children held in detention was likely to have overwhelmed the federal government's capacity to hold them.
“The magnitude of the incarceration of children under these new policies remains unclear,” said Michael Clemens, an economist at the Center for Global Development, who has been critical of the proposal. “The rate of incarceration before these recent unclear announcements was extremely high, and it’s certainly not obvious this apparent change in course will result in a large or any reduction.”
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Washington Examiner this week that the administration projects it will be, in the Examiner's words, “taking about 250 kids each day at least for the next two months.” That would mean that, given the 11,500 children now in custody, a total of about 30,000 would be held by August.
The White House has not estimated how many child migrants it thinks it will detain under its plan, either in the short or long term. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request to explain the number quoted in the Examiner or to provide new numbers.
Asked how many children his office estimated being in its care, a spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement said in an email: “Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody.”
One potential hurdle to the rapid growth in the detention of migrant children is the lack of capacity at the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for holding the families under the executive order.
The DHS has the capacity to hold about 3,000 people in three “family detention centers” around the country, two of which are in Texas.
“It was clear they needed to change the policy both because of its cruelty and because they were on an unsustainable course,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “The number of children being put in shelters was going up so rapidly that the cost would be enormous, the capacity issues would be hugely difficult, and there would be tremendous concern about the services that could be provided under those kinds of circumstances.”
Trump's executive order redirects the flow of children away from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and toward the DHS. But the order also calls for the enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy under which all adults illegally crossing the border are prosecuted, leading some activists to fear that the number of children being detained will continue to increase along its prior trajectory.
“It remains a real possibility the numbers will dramatically increase because they have not backed away from the zero-tolerance policy,” said Jennifer Quigley, an advocate with the international organization Human Rights First. “All the Trump executive order has done is add confusion to how many children will be detained.”
We obtained unpublished estimates of the number of undocumented immigrant children in HHS at 15 points in time, most recently as of June 15. From those figures, we estimated how quickly the number of children in custody had increased, both since before the zero-tolerance policy was enacted in early April (about 42 per day) and since detentions accelerated in May (about 62 per day).
To project those numbers forward, we considered both a simple linear increase and a model that accounted for the fact that the zero-tolerance policy might deter people from crossing the border. For the slightly more complicated model, we assumed that deterrence would cut the growth rate by 25 percent immediately and that the effect would build steadily and lead to a 50 percent lower rate by the end of the first year.
The estimates do not account for seasonal swings in the number of people crossing the southern border. If they did, the projected increase would be even bigger — it occurred during the transition to the warm summer months, when immigration tends to drop off.
The models do not account for the slower case-processing times that experts said would likely result from a much higher population in detention. If processing times slow, the number of children in detention would rise more rapidly.
Several immigration experts were consulted on this methodology and described it as reasonable to The Post.