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The Trump administration used an early, unreported program to separate migrant families along a remote stretch of the border

A pair of migrant families from Brazil pass through a gap in the border wall last month to reach the United States at Yuma, Ariz., to seek asylum. (Eugene Garcia/AP)

MEXICO CITY — The Trump administration began separating migrant families along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border months earlier than has been previously reported — part of a little-known program coming into view only now as the Biden administration examines government data.

In May 2017, Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Ariz., began implementing a program known as the Criminal Consequence Initiative, which allowed for the prosecution of first-time border crossers, including parents who entered the United States with their children and were separated from them.

From July 1 to Dec. 31, 2017, 234 families were separated in Yuma, according to newly released data from the Department of Homeland Security, almost exactly the same number as were separated in a now well-known pilot program in El Paso that year. Because the Yuma program began in May, and the existing data on family separations begins only in July, the number of separations there was probably higher than 234, a prospect the Biden administration is now investigating.

Some of the parents separated under the Yuma program still remain apart from their children four years later. Others are missing — lawyers and advocates have been unable to locate them since they were deported alone. The children separated in Yuma in 2017 were as young as 10 months old, according to government data.

The new information shows the difficulty of accounting for aspects of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, an ever-changing series of measures aimed at stopping migrants from crossing the border. Even the impact of family separation — perhaps the most scrutinized U.S. immigration policy of the last half-century — is not fully understood.

They were one of the first families separated at the border. Two and a half years later, they’re still apart.

Though the formal period in which the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was implemented spanned only April to June 2018, it’s now clear that separations began roughly a year earlier along some stretches of the border.

More than 5,600 families were separated between mid-2017 and mid-2018, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The Biden administration is investigating whether more previously unregistered separations might have occurred earlier in Trump’s term.

The Yuma statistics were identified by the Biden administration as it attempts to reunify the migrant families separated under Trump. In that process, Biden officials have also learned that the geographic breadth of family separation was much greater than previously known.

Between 2017 and 2018, parents from at least 22 countries across five continents were separated from their children by U.S. immigration officials at the border. While the majority came from Central America, others came from as far away as Congo, Kyrgyzstan and Hungary.

The family separation policy ended with a court order in June 2018. The federal government produced three different internal reports on its impacts, and Congress held multiple hearings. But the Yuma separations were not disclosed publicly until last month’s release of a slim Department of Homeland Security report on the Biden administration’s efforts to reunify families.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection “is known to have conducted family separations in connection to the Zero-Tolerance Policy in the El Paso Border Patrol Sector from April 1 to December 31, 2017,” the department reported. But “the data suggest that a similar number of separations occurred in the Yuma Sector during this period.”

The department did not explain what happened in Yuma. But in interviews with government officials and lawyers and court transcripts and government documents, The Washington Post has come to understand details of the program. In several cases, Justice Department attorneys mentioned the Criminal Consequence Initiative in court as they prosecuted parents. In apprehension reports, Border Patrol agents used the program to justify separating parents.

Reached for comment, Customs and Border Protection said it could not confirm the program led to separations.

“Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector carried out a prosecution initiative beginning in May 2017,” the agency said in a statement. “However, Border Patrol is unable to definitively link the Yuma Sector prosecution initiative to the 234 cases of in-scope family separations listed in the DHS Family Reunification Progress Report.”

The Criminal Consequence Initiative was applied in four Border Patrol sectors in the spring of 2017. The prosecution of first-time border crossers was a goal championed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The program prioritized repeat offenders and felons. But in 2017, roughly half of those apprehended in Yuma were part of family units, according to DHS data. It was often parents who were referred for prosecution under the program — and were separated from their children in the process.

The Trump administration apparently separated and prosecuted parents in Yuma daily throughout much of 2017. The effort appears to have flown under the radar in part because the Yuma sector is among the most remote along the border. For months before the program’s inception, Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot had been pushing for a program that would hold all undocumented border crossers in the sector accountable.

“Without aggressive prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office of all those committing criminal acts as a result of breaching our border, the American people will continue to see a border that is an open opportunity for this criminal element to exploit,” Wilmot said in a February 2017 congressional hearing.

In March 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told CNN he was considering separating migrant families to deter their arrival at the border. The children, he said, “will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

After those comments prompted outrage, Kelly backtracked, telling members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in April 2017 that families would remain together unless the “situation at the time requires it.”

But a month later, a surge in family separations sent a shock through Yuma’s federal courts.

“I remember it was pretty horrible. It was a very dramatic increase very quickly,” said Nora Nuñez, an attorney in the Yuma County public defender’s office who defended many of the separated parents.

“Suddenly, I was getting tons of them, often several a day,” she said. “My thought was that maybe it was a test run.”

Massive family reunification effort starts with a mother and son at the border

That July, James F. Metcalf, a U.S. magistrate judge, ruled on an early separation case, a Guatemalan father named Rene Jimon who had been separated from his daughter.

In that hearing, Metcalf remarked that such cases were not uncommon in Yuma.

“I am concerned about the fact that you have this child, but you should be assured that you aren’t the first person in this situation,” Metcalf told Jimon, according to an audio recording of the trial. “The government has set up a process for situations like this, and children are taken care of and provided a safe environment under these situations.”

In the Border Patrol’s apprehension paperwork, agents were clear after the program was implemented that parents would need to be separated so they could be prosecuted.

In one apprehension slip, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, an agent wrote that a Guatemalan mother who was prosecuted under the initiative in July 2017 “was separated from [her daughter] due to [her] presentation of a prosecution reinstatement.”

The geographical spread of the separated families has come as a surprise to those working on the reunification effort.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, families came not only from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but also Angola, Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Congo, Ecuador, Hungary, India, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, Romania, Russia, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

Officials say it is possible some of those far-flung families have already been reunified. But because the Trump administration kept limited records, often the only way to confirm whether families remain separated is to contact the parents. Officials say they are hoping families that remain separated will contact them as the reunification program gets more global attention.

“I hope that many of those families, as they hear that there is this opportunity, will come forward,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the DHS family reunification task force. “Our job is to create this sense of trust, to create a safe mechanism for people to do that.”

Separated at the border, reunited, then separated again: For migrant families, another trauma

The ACLU, which was given access to government data through a court order, has catalogued cases that hint at the policy’s global impact.

In August 2017, for example, a father from Tajikistan was separated from his 4-year-old daughter. In October 2017, a mother from Romania was separated from her 6-year-old son. In April 2018, three siblings from Nigeria — 12, 14 and 16 years old — were separated from their dad. In December 2017, a 2-year-old boy from Brazil was separated from his father.

“We know from the documents provided in the litigation that families separated by the Trump administration came not just from Central America but all over the world,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney on the ACLU’s family separation litigation. “Which will make the process of putting this all back together that much more difficult.”

Maria Sachetti and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

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