Separated Families Minors At Border Update

March 30, 2021

A development on one of the most hotly-debated policies of the recent past: family separation at the U.S. southern border.

Pres. Biden issues an executive action, promising change.

What it does
(and what it doesn’t).

Policy Background

  • During parts of 2017 and 2018, the Trump admin. implemented a zero-tolerance policy, requiring the arrest of every adult illegally entering the U.S.
  • When an adult is arrested, they cannot have a minor detained alongside them.
  • Previously, adults w/ child(ren) entering the country illegally could avoid arrest, either through applying for asylum or by getting “released” in the U.S. while awaiting legal proceedings.
“We’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families — their mothers and fathers at the border — and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents.”

President Biden on creating a task force to reunite separated families.

What To Know

  • In 2018, Pres. Trump ended family separation replacing the policy w/family detention. A federal court ordered the reunification of minors separated from their parent/guardian under the zero-tolerance policy.
  • The Biden admin. formally rescinded the zero-tolerance policy in Jan. 2021.
  • Approx. 11% of minors separated during the policy (an estimated 628 of 5,500) have yet to be reunited.

COVID Impact

  • March 2020: CDC & DHS instituted a policy that automatically expelled anyone incl. minors, and those seeking legal protection (ex. asylum), without legal status, in response to the global pandemic.
  • A court order stopped these expulsions; just last week a higher court overruled that decision, allowing the expulsions to continue (but this doesn’t necessarily mean they *will* continue).

Big Picture

  • Much of recent U.S. immigration policy has been created through executive action rather than Congress. As Pres. Biden stated, “I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy.”
  • Big Question: With Democrats holding both houses of Congress, will they push for immigration reform and/or new immigration laws? When Republicans controlled both houses (2015 – 2019), they couldn’t reach a consensus.

The new interagency task force focused on reuniting families is one of the many immigration policy overhauls expected from the Biden admin. The President signed two other immigration-related executive orders calling for a “top-to-bottom” review of the immigration legal system. Read more on our source page about what typically happens to minors at the border.


  • Some children illegally arrive in the U.S. with a parent or legal guardian; others arrive without a parent, or alone, or with someone whom law enforcement deems unsafe (such as a child trafficker, a.k.a. “coyote”).
  • An “unaccompanied alien child” is defined as a minor (under 18) without lawful U.S. immigration status and no U.S. parent or legal guardian *available* to provide care and physical custody.


  • The Dep’t of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehends the minor (17 & younger).
  • DHS transfers UAC to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a part of Dep’t of Health & Human Services (HHS).
  • As their legal status is sorted out, ORR places *most* UAC with “sponsors” (usually parents or close relatives).
  • Others are placed in ORR facilities.
  • ORR checks in periodically to monitor their safety and wellbeing.

Here’s a link to the a recent report (Jan. 2021) by the Dept. of Justice Inspector General on the zero tolerance policy and family separation.

19.01.18 Migrant Children Update II

by Jenna Lee,