Trump’s secret family separation policy

Trump's administration wants to expand it.

Migrants seeking for asylum in the United States are seen in Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana, Baja California state, on June 19, 2019, Mexico ahead of World Refugees Day. (Credit: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants seeking for asylum in the United States are seen in Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana, Baja California state, on June 19, 2019, Mexico ahead of World Refugees Day. (Credit: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

When Maria and her partner Luz (whose names have been changed to protect their identity) arrived at the U.S. border with Luz’s child last month, they did not anticipate what would happen next.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent reportedly looked them both in the eye and told them that because their partnership is not recognized in Guatemala, where same-sex marriage is outlawed, the agency doesn’t process families “like that” and they should just call themselves cousins instead. They resisted and as a result, Maria was separated from CBP by Luz and her child.

After spending over 20 days in a CBP holding cell near El Paso, Texas, meant for stays of only 72 hours or less, Maria was was returned to Juarez without her family.

“Spending all that time in CBP custody is a brutal and harrowing experience on its own, but when she was sent to Juarez on her own she was twice followed, targeted for being a migrant, and attacked in different ways,” Alyssa Isidoridy, who works on the Refugee Protection team at Human Right’s First, told ThinkProgress. “So she’s been facing the anguish of being far from her partner and her partner’s young son and on top of that being alone as a single female, worried that anyone would find out she’s a migrant, worried that people will find out she’s a lesbian waiting in Juarez.”


Isidoridy met Maria on a trip to Juarez providing legal assistance to people impacted by the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols — colloquially known as “Remain in Mexico.”

The administration implemented Remain in Mexico under former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen as a way to mitigate the increase in Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the plan, Central American migrants — who have a legal right to apply for asylum in the United States — will, instead of being held in CBP custody and ultimately transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), be issued a 45-day notice to appear before a judge in immigration court. They will be allowed to visit the United States for court hearings, but will have to live in Mexico during the interim.

This policy, however, is turning out to be one giant mess.

Asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border are routinely given court dates scheduled for 2020 — far beyond the 45 days the administration promised. Vulnerable migrants, including pregnant women and members have LGBTQ community, are being held in overcrowded shelters in dangerous border towns like Juarez and Tijuana. And in some cases, a return to Mexico is a death sentence. Earlier this week, a Honduran woman sent to Mexico under Remain in Mexico was kidnapped and raped.

“There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason or pattern to what they are doing,” Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas, a legal organization representing Remain in Mexico clients, told ThinkProgress. 


Like Isidoridy, Rivas has also witnessed the devastating outcomes of the Remain in Mexico policy, including family separations.

“It’s not uncommon for a married couple to be separated under Remain in Mexico,” Rivas said. “But what I’ve seen is mind-boggling.”

Rivas met a mother who, at seven months pregnant, was separated from her husband and child at the U.S.-Mexico border. The husband and child were sent into the interior of the United States while the mother was sent back to Mexico.

“It’s unfathomable for them to be separating pregnant women and sending them back to Mexico when they’re obviously a vulnerable population,” Rivas added. “All of the pregnant women that I met who were sent back were over 7 months pregnant. All except for one who was 5 months.”

Non-traditional families like same-sex partners, adoptive families without the proper paperwork, or family units that aren’t parent-child are likely to be at a higher risk of separation.

“Those kinds of families would definitely be separated under a program like this,” Isidoridy said. “I think a lot of it has to do with disorganization and distrust of the individuals for coming. I mean they were talking about starting biometrics but it really shows a lack of understanding what kinds of situations these people are fleeing from and what kind of conversation is being had being had before fleeing for your life.”


There is no way of knowing how many how many of those returned were separated from a significant other or family member. Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) reports that as of June 19, 13,987 asylum seekers from Central America have been sent back to Mexico to wait for their court hearings — and the administration wants more.

In various drafts of immigration “deals” between the United States and Mexico, Trump and other top DHS officials assert that expanding the program to other ports of entry is necessary to curb migration. As Roll Call reported, however, expanding Remain in Mexico will only heighten the program’s current problems — like family separation — and actually do very little to deter migration.

Remain in Mexico, meanwhile, has never been more dangerous. Following threats of tariffs, Mexico has stepped up its immigration enforcement leading to the deaths of asylum seeking migrants at the hands of Mexican immigration authorities. A 19-year-old girl from El Salvador left home to reunite with her father in Santa Cruz, California. On her journey, she was shot and killed by Mexican police. Another woman, a Honduran asylum seeker, was brutally murdered after being deported from Mexico.

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other groups, and 11 Central Americans filed a lawsuit against the government regarding the policy, arguing the government is breaking the law in order to deter asylum seekers from seeking safety in the United States. Remain in Mexico won’t stop being implemented and expanded until the 9th circuit rules, but by that point it will be too late for the over 10,000 migrants already returned.