Nearly 1,800 immigrant families were separated at the US-Mexico border from October 2016 through February 2018, amid a crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the administration of President Donald Trump.
The number of family separations has risen sharply in recent weeks, largely because of new policies by the Trump administration, a senior government official told Reuters, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
The numbers are the first comprehensive disclosure by the Trump administration of how many families have been affected by the policies. Previously, the only numbers provided by federal officials on family separations covered a single two-week period in May.
Trump has made his hard-line stance on immigration an integral part of his presidency and has promised to build a wall along the US-Mexican border to curb the flow of migrants from Mexico and Central America.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May a “zero tolerance” policy in which all those apprehended entering the United States illegally would be criminally charged, which generally leads to children being separated from their parents.
Between May 6 and May 19, 658 children were separated from 638 parents because of the stepped-up prosecutions, according to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, bringing the total of officially acknowledged separations to more than 2,400.
The United Nations, immigration and child advocates and Democratic lawmakers have all condemned the practice of separating families at the border.
However, the White House has defended its actions saying it is protecting children and making clear that illegal border crossers will be prosecuted regardless of their family circumstances.
The bulk of the separations involved Central Americans, who make up the majority of families crossing the southwest border. Only a few immigration detention centers have the capacity to house parents and children together.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the Trump administration is using allegations of fraud and security concerns to justify a policy that is actually aimed not at protecting children but at deterring future border crossers.
“Taking a child away from their parent and interfering with the basic constitutional right to family unity, that’s about the most draconian thing you can do and it needs the most compelling reason possible,” said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney.