How It All Began: ACLU and the Uncovering of the Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy, Part 2

June 27, 2019

By Mayra Lopez


Read Part I of this blog here.

Read Part III of this blog here.

This is a three-part blog series, co-authored by ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties’ Legal Investigator & Researcher — Mayra Lopez and Immigrant Rights & Binational Affairs Advocate — Esmeralda Flores, is a uniquely personal glimpse into our work to protect immigrants’ civil rights and freedoms. The collective efforts of our local ACLU’s Advancing Immigrants’ Rights Team were instrumental in bringing to international attention the terrible inhumanity of the Trump administration’s policy of forcibly separating children from their families. These efforts led the national ACLU to file a federal lawsuit to reunite an asylum-seeking mother and her 7-year-old daughter separately detained 2,000 miles apart. The lawsuit cites violations of the Constitution’s due process clause, federal law protecting asylum seekers, and of the federal government’s own directive to keep families intact. Mother and daughter were reunited in March 2018, though the national class-action lawsuit continues.

As stories of babies and children being torn from their weeping mothers gripped the nation, I was tasked to meet with countless distraught parents in detention and document their experiences.


At the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, I met with a mother from El Salvador. She had presented herself at the port of entry with her 2-year-old and 7-year-old sons, seeking asylum. After the three spent a week in detention together, Customs and Border Protection officers told her she had ten minutes to say goodbye to her children. Through tears, she told me all she could do was hold her children as tight as she could before they were ripped away from her. It was another month before she was able to speak by phone with her youngest son.

I met with a Guatemalan father who described border patrol agents pulling his 5-year-old daughter out of his arms as she screamed and cried. He was sent to jail. After two weeks, he concluded the United States was not going to give him the protection he sought. He pleaded guilty under Operation Streamline and withdrew his request for asylum. He was then deported without his daughter.

Across the country and around the world, the backlash intensified as pictures and stories of “babies in cages” received blanket news coverage. Unable to control the increasingly unflattering narrative, President Trump reversed course. On June 20, 2018, he signed an executive order decreeing that families be kept together at the U.S.-Mexico border. But without rescinding his “zero tolerance” policy or issuing any reunification instructions, his move fell far short of addressing the harm.

Less than a week later, at the request of the ACLU, a judge in San Diego issued a preliminary injunction, ordering the Trump administration to reunite all families affected by zero tolerance within 30 days. After missing two deadlines, during which time more than 900 families remained separated and 463 parents were deported without their children, the administration declared it couldn’t locate several hundred parents and proposed the ACLU assume the responsibility of finding them. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw found this unacceptable and called on the government to assemble a team to oversee the reunification process and produce a plan to make it happen.

But today, the challenge continues. We now know that thousands more children were separated from their parents than originally reported. New details continue to emerge about the scope and extent of this inhumane policy. Recently, Trump denied reports that he was privately pushing to reinstate it, even as Judge Sabraw gave his administration six months to identify the remaining separated children and reunite them with their families. The government had asked for an additional two years.

Meanwhile, countless immigrant families are not protected by the current legal challenge and are still being separated with alarming regularity — parents who are alleged but not proven to have a criminal history; aunts, uncles and grandparents who are raising children due to death or unavailability of the biological parents; and undocumented parents already living in the United States, who pose no threat to the community — all continue to be taken from their children and detained by ICE, as they have been for decades.

In the final installment of this series, my colleague Esmeralda Flores will share her experience when she, another colleague and I traveled to Phoenix to assist in reuniting asylum-seeking families separated under the zero tolerance policy.

Authors Mayra Lopez (r) and Esmeralda Flores (l) were among the recipients of the Keeping Families Together Champions Awards for their extraordinary efforts to reunite children and parents during the family separation crisis of 2018.



Read Part I of this blog here.

Read Part III of this blog here.