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How The Trump Administration's 'Zero Tolerance' Policy Changed The Immigration Debate


It's been one year since President Trump signed an executive order that ended the policy of separating immigrant parents and children at the border; that order came after six weeks of international outcry. While the policy was in effect, more than 2,500 minors were taken from their parents or caregivers. Family separation remains one of the most deeply unpopular actions this president has taken since he's been in office. NPR's John Burnett has covered this story from every angle, and he is in the studio with us now to look back at the policy and its impact. Hey there, John.


SHAPIRO: How did this family separation policy come about?

BURNETT: In Trump's first year in office, they quietly started testing family separation as a sort of shock and awe, to act as a deterrent to families thinking about coming north and crossing the border. They decided, we're going to charge the parent with illegal entry and lock them up. Parents cannot have a child with them in federal jail, so the child has to be removed and sent away to a shelter.

This wasn't an announced policy yet, but I started hearing from immigration attorneys who were seeing agents separate families up and down the border. Then the ACLU caught wind of it and filed a lawsuit in late 2017. The plaintiff was a woman fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had her 7-year-old daughter taken into custody and sent to a child shelter in Chicago.

SHAPIRO: But all this time it still was not an official policy, and when the administration was asked about it, they denied that it was happening, right?

BURNETT: That's right. And finally, in May of 2018, the administration makes zero-tolerance official. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions goes to the border, and you can hear these protesters behind him.


JEFF SESSIONS: If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you, as required by law.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Get out of here (ph).

SHAPIRO: And those faint protests we can hear in the background suddenly become very loud protests all across the country.

BURNETT: Exactly. We started hearing these shocking stories from parents who were led into federal court in shackles, when they go back to their border patrol cells, their child is gone, without any advance warning. I remember in other cases parents describe kids literally ripped from their arms by immigration agents - really anguishing stuff. And I should add, though, not all Border Patrol agents were onboard with this. I called up an agent that I know in California, and he said officers who are fathers themselves were not at all pleased to be told, you have to go to work and split up families.

SHAPIRO: And people started piling on against this policy not only across the U.S., but all over the world; Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress were very critical of it.

BURNETT: That's right.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Outrage across the country, from town halls to Capitol Hill.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Child internment camps - that's what...

BURNETT: The U.K., Canada, the pope condemned it, even former first ladies.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Former First Lady Laura Bush now calling the policy cruel.

BURNETT: We saw images of immigrant kids detained in these border patrol holding cells that people were calling cages.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let the children go.

BURNETT: But the administration dug in its heels. Kirstjen Nielsen, who was Homeland Security secretary at the time, was unapologetic.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: DHS and you (ph), on the border, are faced with the reality not of our making. We cannot detain children with their parents, so we must either release both the parents and the children - this is the historic get-out-of-jail-free practice of the previous administration - or the adult and the minor will be separated as a result of prosecuting the adult; those are the only two options.

BURNETT: The problem is, Ari, that's just patently untrue. I've covered the border under three administrations now, and a blanket policy of removing kids from parents who cross the border illegally, that's entirely of this administration's making.

SHAPIRO: So the administration dug in its heels in the face of all of this pushback and protests. What finally made them change their mind?

BURNETT: Well, the outcry got deafening.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shame, shame, shame.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This morning, First Lady Melania Trump is already weighing in on what she's seen.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Hundreds of thousands marching in more than 700 planned protests from coast to coast.

BURNETT: It seems like the turning point came with the release of a tape by ProPublica that was recorded inside of a border patrol station. You hear these wailing children who've just been separated from their moms and dads.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: And so on June 20, a year ago today, President Trump slams on the brakes and signs an executive order stopping family separation.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So we're going to have strong, very strong borders. But we're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated. It's a problem that's gone on for many years, as you know.

SHAPIRO: Again, this seems to fly in the face of what you and others have reported.

BURNETT: Suddenly, after the administration has been aggressively defending the policy for six weeks, Trump joins his critics and says, oh, family separation is wrong. And then he tries to blame his predecessors. And he's continued doing that right up until the present.


TRUMP: President Obama separated the children. Those cages that were shown, I think they were very inappropriate. They were built by President Obama's administration, not by Trump. President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it. You know it. We all know it. I didn't have - I'm the one that stopped it.

BURNETT: Like I said, I've done this for a long time, Ari, and as a member of the press, I can tell you, we didn't know it. Before Trump, immigration agents separated families primarily when they determined that a parent was a danger to their child. I interviewed a federal judge in South Texas, and she told me, even when parents were prosecuted for illegal entry, the Border Patrol, as a rule, did not take the kids away and send them to shelters across the country. They didn't do it under Obama. They didn't do it under George W. Bush. They did it under Trump.

SHAPIRO: So by the time the policy ends, more than 2,500 kids have been separated from their parents. What happened to them at that point?

BURNETT: Well, as one angry immigration lawyer told me, it's a lot easier to break something than to put it back together again. We learned that Homeland Security, which detains the parents, and Health and Human Services, which cares for the minors, were not in sync. One agency had the kids in the U.S.; another agency had deported the parents back to Central America, and nobody could find them. It was a nightmare.

SHAPIRO: So how did they find these parents who'd been deported back to Central America?

BURNETT: Well, that's the question the ACLU had, and that's why they sued the government again, this time to force them to reunite the families. On June 26 of last summer, a federal judge in San Diego...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: ...Ruled overnight that the Trump administration must reunite separated immigrant families within 30 days.

BURNETT: And I went to Guatemala last September and caught up with Lee Gelernt, a senior lawyer for the ACLU. He was overseeing teams who were combing the Mayan Highlands looking for these childless parents.


LEE GELERNT: So this is a highly unusual situation. I never expected that I would be here in Guatemala looking for parents.

SHAPIRO: John, you and I met in a bus station in McAllen, Texas, last summer on the deadline for family reunification. And at that point there were still kids who were not reunified with their parents. What's the situation today?

BURNETT: Well, it took months and months. But today, nearly all of the children and parents have been reunited from that original group. But there's a new wrinkle, Ari - a federal inspector general revealed in January that the government may have separated thousands more children from their parents at the border than we knew about. The government says it may take two years to identify all those kids, most of whom, it says, are now back with their parents.

SHAPIRO: Looking back at the chaos of this last year-plus, what do you see as the legacy of this policy?

BURNETT: You know, I think an important takeaway is how this whole episode changed the immigration debate and changed how people think about what effect these policies have on immigrant children. And for instance, this week, we heard that deportation agents are going to start rounding up recently arrived immigrant families. And a source close to the administration told me they're concerned about the visuals of armed agents leading kids away into vans with their parents.

SHAPIRO: NPR's John Burnett. Thank you for this look back.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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