Deterring Illegal Immigration by Separating Parents and Children

What does fear accomplish?

It’s a question the Trump administration appears to be trying to answer, whether intentionally or not, as it cracks down on illegal immigration.

Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the administration is considering separating parents from their children if they’re caught crossing the border illegally. If implemented, the policy would mark a shift from current policy, which keeps families together. The move has received pushback from immigrant groups who argue it’s cruel, but administration officials see it as a way to discourage Central American migrants from making the journey to the United States following an uptick in family units and unaccompanied children caught at the border. Even if the policy successfully deters economic migrants however, immigrant advocates warn that it will punish the most desperate immigrants—those fleeing violence or persecution—without dissuading them.

How many people are being arrested?

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped at the start of the Trump presidency, but has since begun to creep up again, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. In March, the Department of Homeland Security reported a 40 percent decline in apprehensions from January to February. Indeed, it appeared the mood had shifted in Central America as Trump took office. In speaking with migrants, advocates, and workers at shelters in the U.S. and Mexico, The New York Times found that people were less likely to make the journey north.

In March, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly attributed the drop in border crossings to the new policies rolled out under President Trump. “Since the Administration’s implementation of Executive Orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years,” Kelly said in a statement. Then, in November, U.S. agents caught 7,018 families, an increase from 4,839 the month before, according to CBP. The number of apprehensions of unaccompanied children also increased.


The uncertainty surrounding DACA raised concerns about the 800,000 young immigrants who face deportation if Congress can’t reach a bipartisan deal and the program disappears.

Attorneys working to prevent deportations

“The backlog in the immigration system is tremendous,” former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, a group member and New York University professor, told the Journal. Lawyers deployed to deportation cases could double or triple the existing backlog of cases “until Trump desists in this stupid idea,” he said.

The idea puts a spotlight on an immigration court system which, unlike the US criminal system, has no constitutionally guaranteed right to an attorney. According to a September study by the American Immigration Council, only 37 percent of people facing deportation nationwide – and just 21 percent of Mexicans – have legal representation.