Family Separation: Happening Beyond the Border Under Multiple Policies

Last Updated

July 9, 2018

While the Trump administration’s most recent policy of separating children from their parents at the border caused enough public outcry to force a reversal, it is only the latest in a series of executive orders and decisions that have been dividing families. Other actions include the following, in chronological order:

Travel Ban

The first assault on families occurred on Jan. 26, 2017, when the administration issued an executive order banning people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering or reentering the United States. This ban was quickly blocked by restraining orders by the courts, but it was replaced with a similar ban on March 6, 2017. The second ban prohibited people from five majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The second version of the travel ban was immediately challenged by some states, including Hawaii and Washington, but the Supreme Court allowed a limited version of it to proceed. On Sept. 24, 2017, as Trump’s original ban was set to expire, the administration unveiled the third version with new restrictions on travel to the United States from: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It also included some government officials from Venezuela. On April 10, 2017, Chad was dropped from the list. The constitutionality of this ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision on June 26, 2018. The ban currently affects millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of U.S citizens and permanent residents, who are prevented from reuniting with family members who live in the listed countries.

Terminating DACA

The administration’s next action to separate families came on Sept. 7, 2017, when it terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. This was based on the questionable legal theory that the president did not have the power to continue such a program. The administration urged Congress to create a permanent legislative solution for the 800,000 Dreamers with DACA who had received temporary work authorization and protection from deportation.

By March 5, 2018, more than 20,000 DACA recipients had already lost this protection. But when the Senate introduced a bill that month that would have remedied the situation, the president retreated and said he would only support legislation that included funding for the Mexican border wall, increased enforcement personnel, elimination of the diversity visa lottery program and a vast reduction in family-based immigration.

The Senate and the House remain deadlocked over legislation that would provide relief to Dreamers and also satisfy the president’s positions. DACA holders and their families remain fearful and uncertain as legal challenges unfold. Two courts have found the termination of DACA to be illegal and ordered U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to continue accepting renewal applications from people who previously had DACA. A third court has given the government until July 23, 2018 to justify the decision to cancel DACA.

Slashing Refugee Admissions

The Trump administration capped the number of refugee admission for Fiscal Year 2018 at 45,000, which is the lowest number since Congress created the current refugee program in 1980. But due to the implementation of new security screening requirements (“extreme vetting”), a three-month suspension of refugee admissions in the beginning of the year, and other slow-downs in refugee processing, it is unlikely that even half that number will actually be admitted.

For the first half of the fiscal year, the United States admitted 10,500 refugees, which is approximately one fourth the number that were admitted by that time in the prior year. The top five nationalities for refugees so far this year are: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Burma, Ukraine, and Eritrea. The travel ban has greatly affected and reduced the number of refugees from Muslim-majority countries. In the past few years the number of refugees from those countries was comparable to that from Christian-majority countries.

Ending TPS for People from Six Countries

Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is an immigration program that provides limited relief to people from designated countries that are experiencing armed conflict, environmental disaster or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. The status allows recipients to live and work in the United States rather than be forced to return to dangerous conditions in their home countries.

As of June 2018, the Trump administration had terminated the TPS designations for six countries—Sudan, Nicaragua, Nepal, Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras—affecting an estimated 310,540 TPS holders. Most of these immigrants have built strong ties to the United States over many years and have little to return to.

For example, the two largest populations of TPS holders ­ from El Salvador and Honduras ­ have been living in the United States for more than 20 years. There are more than 270,000 U.S. citizen children whose parents are TPS holders from just three countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. These terminations leave TPS holders with an impossible choice: abandon their children and return to their home countries alone or relocate with them and subject them to deplorable levels of crime, violence and poverty.

Extreme Vetting of Low Income Immigrants (Proposed)

The administration is expected to propose a regulation that would radically alter the way USCIS and Department of State screen for potential “public charge.” (USCIS defines “public charge” this way: “For purposes of determining inadmissibility, “public charge” means an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”)

Based on a leaked version of the proposed regulation, the USCIS will propose changing the definition of public charge and mandating the consideration of possible receipt of specific non-cash benefit programs. Instead of limiting public charge considerations to whether the immigrant is likely to become dependent on two federal cash programs and one for the institutionalization for long-term care, it would become whether someone “is likely at any time to use or receive one or more public benefits.”

It would hold the intending immigrant accountable for any past or future benefits received by their children or other dependents, to which they are legally entitled and often are encouraged to use them.

Receiving aid through the following non-cash benefit programs by the applicant or a dependent family member during the last three years would be considered as negative factors for an immigration application: subsidized health insurance under the Affordable Care Act; Medicaid (non-emergency services); Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, (formerly food stamps); State Child Health Insurance Program known as CHIP or SCHIP; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC; housing assistance; energy benefits; and Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit.

This change, if finalized as proposed, would mean that thousands of immigrant applicants would be denied permanent residency due to their low- income or low earning potential. It also means that the approximately 10 million citizen children who live in the United States with at least one non-citizen parent will be discouraged from continued or future receipt of vital health and nutrition programs. Such a result is in fact already happening, even without the change being finalized.