The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on February 2, 2021, that examines the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance immigration enforcement policy and the resulting separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As background, on May 7, 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) enacted a zero-tolerance policy to deter illegal border crossings into the United States and to decrease the number of asylum claims, which members of the Trump Administration argued were fraudulent. All adults caught crossing the border illegally were prosecuted under the zero tolerance policy without exceptions for asylum seekers or those accompanied by minors.
The CRS report pointed out that family separations resulted from the zero tolerance policy rather than a specific family separation order. Although prior administrations had fewer instances of illegal border crossing prosecutions, there was a lack of data on the actual number of family separations arising from prosecutions. As a result, it was not possible to draw a direct comparison between the outcomes of prior administrations with those of the zero tolerance policy implemented during the Trump era.
Trump Administration officials maintained that the zero tolerance policy served as a necessary deterrent for migrants seeking to enter the United States illegally and file fraudulent asylum claims. On the other hand, immigrant advocates described the family separations as unconstitutional, cruel and inhumane, arguing that families were fleeing from countries in which they faced legitimate threats of violence. They became the victims of a hastily enforced policy that was not backed up by a plan for family reunification in the aftermath of criminal prosecutions.
The report also briefly discussed the introduction of family separation-related legislation during the 116th and 115th Congresses. The CRS noted that the DOJ formally rescinded the zero tolerance policy on January 26, 2021, during President Joe Biden’s first month in office. The report was not updated to reflect the change.