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How more migrant children separated from their parents at the border could end up in Minnesota

What you need to know about the origins of the separation policy; what President Trump’s most recent executive order means — and where things go from here. 

A detained immigrant child watches a cartoon at a U.S Customs and Border patrol immigration detainee processing facility in Tucson, Arizona.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

In recent months, stories about children separated from their parents at the U.S. border sparked outrage and demonstrations, including the one that drew thousands of people on Saturday to downtown Minneapolis.  

The separation of children and their parents was the result of the controversial “zero-tolerance” policy, which the Trump administration announced in April in response to an increase in Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States.  

Growing political pressure forced President Donald Trump to end the separation policy on June 20 when he signed an executive order that reversed the decision and ordered immigration officers to detain migrant families together. That was not before more than 2,500 migrant children had been separated from their parents at the border, however, a saga that ignited a national uproar from political figures, religious groups and humanitarian agencies.    

Now, as the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies involved in the separation scramble to reunite families, here’s what you need to know about the origins of the separation policy, what the recent executive order means — and how more separated children could end up in Minnesota:

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What’s the difference between unaccompanied migrant children and children who have been separated from their parents at the border?
People often conflate the two, but they are actually two different things. Unaccompanied children are migrants who come to the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents. Oftentimes, they’re seeking to join their parents, siblings or relatives who are already in the United States. Their crossing of the border has remained an ongoing concern for the U.S. government. But the Department of Health and Human Services has an existing policy that provides them with some support as they await legal immigration proceedings.   

The issue of the child separations is different. It’s about parents and their children who arrive at the U.S. border together seeking asylum. Under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy in effect earlier this year, American officials intentionally separated those children from their parents while they await immigration proceedings.

What led the Trump administration to implement the zero-tolerance policy?
In the early part of 2018, there was a drastic increase in the number of migrants crossing the border —  especially those coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Most of them were women and children, and many of them were escaping gang violence, persecution and other life-threatening circumstances in their home countries. In order to deter these migrants from coming to the U.S., the Trump administration put in place the zero-tolerance policy, which ordered the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to separate children from their parents after detaining them at the border. 

Before the zero-tolerance policy, how did the government deal with migrant families trying to cross the border?
When migrants arrived at any port of entry along the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers approached and asked them for their documents. If they weren’t U.S. citizens or didn’t have proper documents, officers pulled them aside for questioning. In this process, officers would ask if the migrants were afraid for their lives should they be returned to their country of origin. 

If the migrants expressed a fear of returning to their homelands, CBP would hand them over to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customers Enforcement, and ICE would then take them to detention centers. The migrants would then start the asylum process, one that consists of multiple interviews, background checks and security screenings. If those migrant families included children, the children would stay with the parents throughout the process, though the proceedings would be expedited.  

The asylum seekers would then try to convince immigration judges that they have a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion. The government would then either grant them protection or put them in deportation proceedings.  

How were things different at the border under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy?   
The zero-tolerance policy criminalizes all adult migrants crossing the border — irrespective of whether they’re escaping legitimate fear in their home countries. This means that migrant adults are prosecuted for breaking immigration laws upon entry. And, of course — until a few weeks ago, when the president signed the order that called for the end of the separation policy — the government had separated children from their parents during the process, with the children placed detention facilities and shelters.

How many children had been separated from their parents and how old are they?
The feds separated more than 2,500 children from their parents at the border in the last three months. Their ages range anywhere between nine months and 17 years old. In most cases, however, they’re between 4 and 12 years of age.   

Now that the president signed an executive order that ended the separation, what happens to the children already taken away from their parents?  
Some of them had already been returned to their families. But most of them still remain under the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is keeping them in detention facilities and shelters scattered in Texas, Virginia, New York, Michigan and other states. Government officials said that they’re working on a plan to reunite the rest of the children with their families. However, it’s unclear how and when they’re going to do that. It’s possible that they’d be reunited with their parents in detention or released to relatives or foster homes across the country. Last week a federal judge in California issued a preliminary injunction ordering that separated children younger than 5 years old must be reunited with their parents within 14 days and children 5 and older must be reunited within 30 days. 

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Have any of these kids ended up in Minnesota?
So far, there are two known cases of separated children brought to Minnesota: a 7-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy from Guatemala were brought here just weeks before the Trump administration announced the zero-tolerance policy in April. The Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights and the St. Paul-based International Institute of Minnesota (IIM), the two organizations working with the children, would not reveal further details about the children, including their names, whereabouts or whether they are with relatives or in shelters for privacy reasons. In the coming weeks and months, however, more separated children could be referred to IIM because of its established programs tailored to new refugees and unaccompanied migrant minors.

So a Minnesota organization has a program that services children separated from their parents at the border?
IIM is one of the largest organizations in Minnesota that provide resettlement, education, health and employment services to new immigrants and refugees. It doesn’t necessarily have a program tailored to separated children — separation is a fairly new policy, after all — but it does have a program for serving unaccompanied minors that’s been around for years now. That’s why leaders at the institute say the national Office of Refugee Resettlement might start referring separated children to the organization — especially if the minors have family members in Minnesota.      

What kind of services would the organization provide these children?
The services are pretty much similar to those it provides to new refugees during the resettlement process. For example, the agency ensures the safety of the children if they’re joined with a family member. It also connects them to resources, including school enrollment, health care, food assistance as well as mental health and legal services.

Now that there’s a new policy that says immigration officials can no longer separate migrant families at the border, what’s next?
Yes, the separation policy has ended, but everything else in the zero-tolerance policy is pretty much intact. For example, adult migrants caught crossing the border will still face criminal prosecution for doing that. That means that their children will be detained with them as they go through court proceedings, which can take months, if not years. This indefinite detention of children, however, violates a decades-old resettlement called the Flores agreement, which limits detention of minors to not more than 20 days and requires that children be held in “least restrictive” facilities, like a state-licensed shelter.  

To alter the settlement, the Trump administration has recently asked a federal judge in Loss Angles to eliminate some of the requirements in the agreement so that government can detain children indefinably in ICE facilities.