The separations are part of a broader crackdown against illegal immigration by the Trump administration. Deportations of those in the U.S. illegally have increased sharply. The requirements for being granted asylum have been tightened, and many of those seeking asylum now must wait in Mexico while their claims are considered (see “How Asylum Works,” below).
“We are seeing an overall effort to make it difficult or impossible for people seeking humanitarian relief to come to the United States,” says Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.
Many Trump administration immigration policies are designed to discourage undocumented migrants from even trying to come to the U.S.
“If they feel there will be separation, they won’t come,” Trump said last year of migrant parents.
Many of those arriving in the U.S. say their lives are at risk in their home countries (see “What They’re Fleeing,” below), and they’re asking to be allowed to stay on those grounds. It’s a process called claiming asylum, and the number of migrants arriving in the U.S. who are using it has risen by almost 2,000 percent in the past decade.
President Trump and many of his supporters say this is evidence that the asylum system is being abused.
“There is widespread abuse,” says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group that favors immigration restrictions. “People know that if they say the right things and get into the asylum system that they’ll be able to stay in the U.S. for years as they wait for their case to even come up.”
But immigration advocates say that none of this justifies separating kids from their families or holding them for long periods of time.
“It’s a horrific policy,” Greenberg says. “It’s hard to think of a policy that would be more destructive and harmful to children.”
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—where most of the current migrants come from—all are rife with severe poverty and intense violence from gangs and drug cartels. The authorities there are famously corrupt and often work with the criminals, so they’re of little help in protecting people.