On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order which intends to stop the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. While it appears to be a step toward what critics of the policy have asked for, the order didn't cover what will happen to migrant kids already separated from their families.
"We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together," Trump said while he signed the executive order, The New York Times reports. "I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."
By signing the order, Trump pivoted away from his own claims that the family separation policy could only be stopped by Congressional legislation. Before signing the order, Trump alleged that there has been difficulty passing any immigration-related bill because Democrats "don't care about lack of security, they really would like to have open borders."
As of Tuesday, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official had told news outlets that more than 2,300 children had been separated from their families following the implementation of the so-called "zero-tolerance" immigration policy. Health and Human Services (HHS) officials have told news outlets that they currently have no special plan for reuniting families whose children are already in custody.
"For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual," Kenneth Wolfe, an HHS spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News.
That means that the minors will remain in HHS custody until they are able to be placed either with a U.S.-based family member or other sponsors who can take them on, as BuzzFeed explains.
The family separations stem from a policy shift announced two months ago. Per a statement issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and echoed by a later statement by DHS, the U.S. government has begun prosecuting every single adult suspected of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable," Sessions said in a statement released in April. "Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest—that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border."
As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border. To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice.
However, despite this announcement, the Trump administration has long maintained the false assertion that family separations were required by law. However, there is no law that requires that families be separated.
Families had been separated because the Trump administration chose to implement a policy requiring mandatory prosecutions for illegal entry, as well as for attempted illegal entry, into the United States. Children are not allowed to go through the penal system, so when their parents were taken into custody, they were put in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Firsthand accounts of the detention centers where children have been placed have sparked furor across not just the country, but the world, too. Conditions have been described as cage-like, and many have described the infant-holding locations as "baby jails."
Opponents to the policy arose from both sides of the political spectrum. Reports indicated that Melania and Ivanka Trump personally lobbied Donald Trump to cease the policy. Beyond the current FLOTUS, every single living former first lady also condemned the crisis, including Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Kamala Harris is currently calling for Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to resign over how her department has handled the issue. Many experts believe that the children stripped from their parents may deal with psychological repercussions for the rest of their lives.
Still, thousands of children reportedly remain in holding, and no plan to reunite them with their families has been publicly released. Some have also expressed concern that Trump's executive order doesn't do enough, that keeping entire families in holding together could also lead to problems. Whether there is enough space within existing facilities to begin safely housing families is currently unknown.