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It goes without saying that President Donald Trump’s highly controversial tactic of separating migrant families is complicated on the ground.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in early May that the US would refer “100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution,” adding “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

In order to understand how Trump’s zero-tolerance policy plays out on the ground, we explain below how and when children are separated from their families, where they go afterwards and how they may get reunited.

Let’s start from the beginning:


Many migrants are asylum-seekers fleeing violence, oftentimes from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where MS-13 and other gang violence is widespread.

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A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation.
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Getty

And because of Trump’s new policy, if they’re apprehended crossing illegally and don’t go through the ports of entry, the parents will be referred for prosecution (it is a federal misdemeanor to cross illegally).

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Central American immigrants turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on February 22, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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Getty

And this is what causes parents to be separated from their children: parents cannot be with their children while in jail awaiting prosecution.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Although if migrant families try to cross at a port of entry, whether they’re seeking asylum or not, they will not be charged with crossing illegally, nor will they be separated.

Although there are circumstances in which families can be separated even at a port of entry. For example, if customs has reason to believe the parents and children are not actually family.


But some cross illegally because they don’t know that they could be charged and separated, Josh Breisblatt, an American Immigration Council lawyer, told Business Insider.

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A Border Patrol agent speaks with Central American immigrant families who crossed into the United States seeking asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas.
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Getty Images

Or they choose to go between the ports of entry because the lines have become so backed up.

“What is happening is more people are going to the ports of entry, and there are now huge back ups at the ports,” Breisblatt said.

“Those people are at the ports of entry in 100 degree heat,” Breisblatt said. “I’m sure many of them after a period of time, are exposed to the elements … and are also at the hands of the cartels.”


After migrant families are apprehended illegally crossing the border, they will be taken to a border patrol holding cell.

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John Moore/Getty Images


It’s here that children are separated from their families. This is where and why we’ve seen kids sleeping in “cages” under emergency blankets.


After 72 hours, the children will be placed into Health and Human Services and either handed over to a family member, guardian or sponsor in the US.

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Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., are seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018.
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ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS

“And that child, many times, is going through their own immigration case,” Breisblatt said.

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A Honduran mother removes her two-year-old daughter’s shoe laces, as required by U.S. Border Patrol agents, after being detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by federal authorities before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.
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John Moore/Getty Images

“They are also in their removal proceeding, and they are trying to make their own claim,” Breisblatt said. “They do not get counsel, so you have children, sometimes 3 year olds, trying to make claims for asylum in front of a seasoned ICE attorney.”


The parents, meanwhile, will be handed over to US Marshals, as they await prosecution, held in pre-disposition holding cells.

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Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.
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Getty Images

After parents seeking asylum are found guilty of crossing the border illegally, they are then placed in an ICE detention center as they wait to get asylum, which can sometimes take a few years.

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An immigrant takes food into a cell for incoming ICE detainees at the Adelanto immigration detention center in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017.
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Reuters

And this whole time, from when they’re separated at the border patrol holding cells until they get asylum, the parents do not see their children.

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U.S. Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and weddding rings before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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“There are supposed to be mechanisms for people in ICE detention to at least talk to their kids when they’re in HHS custody,” Breisblatt said, “but our understanding was those lines of communication are not working well.”


And those parents who don’t get asylum are then deported — often without their kids.

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A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old daughter while being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.
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Getty

If “the parent were to lose their case [for asylum], the kid is still in the United States, and the parent ends up getting deported,” Breisblatt said.

“We’ve been trying to get answers [as to how the parent gets their kid back] … it seems unclear at this point.”


The United Nations and other human rights organizations have argued that Trump’s policy violates international law by prosecuting asylum seekers.

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El Salvadorian immigrant children sit while talking with Border Patrol agents after the Central American families crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas.
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Getty

The ACLU is also currently suing the US Justice Department over separating families, which spawned from the separation of an asylum-seeking Congolese mother from her daughter.

“The lawsuit cites violations of the Constitution’s due process clause, federal law protecting asylum seekers, and of the government’s own directive to keep families intact,” according to the ACLU.

Read more about the case here.

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