From the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Southern California coast, the Trump administration continues separating migrant families at rates that alarm immigration attorneys and advocates, even though a federal judge barred family separations as a systemic policy.
Separations have slowed significantly since a federal judge in San Diego ordered the administration to halt the practice in June 2018. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw allowed separations in rare, specific circumstances, and the Trump administration has exploited those openings at a worrying clip, according to groups that work with migrants along the border.
"We are alarmed," said Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a Chicago-based national human rights group. "In March and April, we again saw a notable increase."
Advocates at the Young Center's Harlingen, Texas, office said one in every five families they see at migrant shelters have been separated at the border for questionable reasons. The children ranged in age from 18 months to 15 years old.
Attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project said they've counted more than 40 separated families a month in the McAllen area since the injunction in June.
Officials at Al Otro Lado, which advocates for immigrants in California, said dozens of families are separated each day throughout the San Diego metro area.
The official government count is at 389 separated families since last summer's injunction, according to data received by the American Civil Liberties Union in court filings. One-fifth of the newly separated children are younger than 5 years old, according to the figures.
Advocates said that border-wide, the number of separated children is much higher.
Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he realizedthat the government still intended to separate children at the border days after the injunction. Sitting in the federal courtroom in McAllen, he learned of multiple cases of families being separated. One man from Guatemala had his 2-year-old-daughter taken away from him despite having a birth certificate with both their names and no prior criminal record, Olivares said. It took nearly a month to get them back together.
"We knew then we couldn’t let our guard down," Olivares said. "This was still happening every day."
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told a congressional panel Tuesday that his department is conducting "less than two" family separations per day, which he described as minor compared with the 1,600 family units crossing the border each day.
"It's being done very carefully in extraordinarily rare circumstances," McAleenan testified before a House appropriations committee.