To help you understand your rights and protections, the City of Philadelphia is creating action guides on federal policies. The action guides include facts, ways you can help, and other resources.

The Trump Administration recently announced its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, as well as an executive order regarding family separation.

Get the facts on how these policies affect immigrant families, plus what you can do to take action.

Know the facts

What is President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy?

On May 7, 2018, the Trump Administration announced its “zero tolerance” immigration policy. This policy allows the US government to separate families who seek asylum in the US by crossing the border without documentation. The policy states that all adults caught crossing into the US illegally will be criminally prosecuted. The requirement of criminal prosecution is a White House policy, not a law enacted by Congress.

As a result, families seeking asylum are being forcibly torn apart. Parents are separated from their children, labeled criminals, and sent to jail. Upon separation from their families, children are officially labeled “unaccompanied alien children,” a term that typically describes children under the age of 18 who come to the US without an adult relative arriving with them. These children are then sent to government custody or foster care.

How were these cases handled before the “Zero Tolerance” policy?

Before President Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” people were held for the civil offense of crossing into the U.S. Immigrants who are charged with this civil immigration offense, remained in immigration detention with their family and were then sent before an immigration judge who decided whether they would be deported. However, immigrants who are charged with the criminal offense of illegal entry are sent to a federal jail to await criminal prosecution. They are brought before a federal judge a few weeks later to deal with their criminal case. Separation happens because children cannot be kept with families in federal jail.

How many families have been separated?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that from April 18th to May 31st, 2018, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents while attempting to cross into the U.S. However, this number may be an undercount. According to DHS officials, this number reflects only the families that have been separated when parents were sent into criminal custody to be prosecuted for illegal entry. This does not include families who presented themselves for asylum legally by coming to an official port of entry and were then separated.

Family separation does not have to happen. There is no law that requires immigrant families to be separated. The decision to implement a “zero tolerance” policy and charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry, as well as the decision to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than wait to see if they qualify for asylum — are both decisions the Trump administration has made.

What happens to the children after they are separated from their parents?

Upon being separated from their parents, children are officially designated “unaccompanied alien children” by the US government — a category that typically describes people under the age of 18 who come to the US without an adult relative arriving with them.

Under federal law, unaccompanied immigrant children are sent into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. ORR is then responsible for identifying and screening the nearest relative or family friend living in the U.S. to whom the child can be released.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are required to be sent to ORR within 72 hours of being apprehended. They’re kept in detention centers, or short-term foster care, for days or weeks while ORR officials try to identify the nearest relative in the US who can take the child in while his immigration case is being resolved.

Is the practice of separating families new?

Yes. This specific practice is new, but problems with existing systems are not.

In 2014, the Obama administration faced a dramatic influx of migrants from Central America. While this influx continues under Trump, the two administrations have taken different approaches.

Under the Obama administration, unaccompanied minors made up a large portion of the Central American influx. The Obama administration placed many of the unaccompanied minors in closed housing units until they could be transferred to family in the United States while they awaited court proceedings.

When families did arrive at the border, the Obama administration did not have any kind of widespread practice of separating children from their parents. DHS officials announced at the time that they would deport anyone who entered the U.S. illegally. And they expanded access to immigration detention centers, where families were held with their children while they were awaiting immigration hearings. And court rulings eventually required the administration to end some of the extended detentions of parents and children.

What has changed is the Trump’s administration’s handling of these cases. Undocumented immigrant families seeking asylum were previously released and went into the civil court system, but now Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy aims to prosecute every single illegal border crossing, including asylum-seekers.

The government separates children from their parents or legal guardians because the adults have been referred for prosecution for illegal entry into the United States. The children are then resettled in the United States as though they were unaccompanied immigrant children.The Justice Department cannot prosecute children along with their parents, so the natural result of the zero-tolerance policy has been a sharp rise in family separations.

Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary under Obama, said he did not separate children and parents despite the enormous surges of unaccompanied minors and families that came across the border in 2014 fleeing Central American violence. Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, Cecilia Muñoz, said the Obama administration did consider a similar policy, but determined it heartless.

How does the Executive Order change family separation?

On June 20, 2018 President Trump reversed course signing an executive order that does not end the “zero tolerance” policy, but will no longer separate families. Instead, families will not be kept together in detention indefinitely. Although the Justice Department will continue to enforce the “zero tolerance” policy by prosecuting adults who cross the border without proper documentation in federal court, adults will not physically be turned over to the Justice Department, and will instead stay with their children in detention with the Department of Homeland Security.

The Executive order directs the Justice Department to prioritize cases involving detained families. Currently, if a family has a potentially valid claim of asylum, their court date in immigration court could be in months or years in the future, during which time they are allowed to live and work in the US. Under the Executive order, the process of deporting the family or giving them legal status is to be expedited. The DOJ is directed to prioritize these cases presumably jumping them in line at immigration court and cutting down substantially the length of time before a judge hears their case.

The order does not ensure reunification of the over 2,000 children already separated from their parents. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are no new special procedures for children already in custody. It is not immediately clear whether, or when, detained children will be reunited with their parents.

What about the Flores Settlement?

The administration has blamed a court case known as “the Flores Settlement” for its having to be forced to separate families. This settlement was reached in 1997 and requires the government to limit the time it keeps unaccompanied minors in detention and to keep them in the least restrictive setting possible. The settlement was later modified to say that children should not be held longer than 20 days.

Trump wants to modify the Flores Settlement. The executive order directs the attorney general to promptly file a request with U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California to modify the Flores Settlement and allow detained migrant families to be held together “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings … or other immigration proceedings.”

Have any migrant children have been transported to Philadelphia?

As far as we know, some children have come to Pennsylvania, but none have come to Philadelphia. Our City’s local refugee resettlement agencies are supporting these children as they do with all unaccompanied immigrant minors that have been coming here over the past few years.

Family Reunification Order

On June 26, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw issued a preliminary injunction that ordered reunification of families and a halt to most family separations at the border. The federal judge ordered that nearly all children younger than 5 be returned to their parents within 14 days and that older children be returned within 30 days. The preliminary injunction prohibits deporting parents who have been separated from their children and blocks future family separations, unless the parent is determined unfit or denies reunification.

Despite this deadline, around 700 children have yet to be reunited with their families according to a federal filing in late August. For many of these remaining children, reunification is not an option due to safety concerns, parental deportation or other issues. The governement is required to  file a weekly status report as part of an ongoing lawsuit. As of August 23, 2018, according to the mandatory weekly report, 1,923 children out of a total of 2,654 who were separated have been reunified.  Of the hundreds who haven’t, about 40 are under the age of 5.

There are concrete actions you can take right now to stand up for families separated at the border.


Call your representatives in Congress. Voice your opinion on the Trump administration’s family separation policy and immigration legislation. If you need a suggestion of what to say, the ACLU has created a script that you can use.

Write a letter to the media. Raise awareness of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border by writing letters to the editor and op-eds about your opposition to the family-separation policy.

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Make your voice heard on social media. Use #FamiliesBelongTogether to voice your opinion on family separation at the border.

Share this guide with your friends and neighbors. Let people know the facts on immigration and how they can take action to support our immigrant community.


Attend an event. Around the country, there are opportunities to make your voice heard. On June 30, 2018 there will be nationwide #FamiliesBelongTogether actions, sponsored by MoveOn, ACLU, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Leadership Council. Sign up for more information.