Trump’s Border Policy: Separation Anxiety

For decades, the 2,000-mile land border between the United States and Mexico has been a focal point of U.S.-Mexico relations and of U.S. domestic policy. The border has also been a centerpiece of President Trump’s policies toward Mexico and the region; he has promised to build a wall along the entire border, militarize the border area, and increase the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers on the southwest border. Recently, the United States has seen a significant jump in the number of non-Mexican migrants, especially from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Many of the migrants arriving at the border are fleeing deteriorating economic conditions and pervasive gang-related violence. Some arrive with small children and other family members, while many children make the journey to the border alone.

Q1: Who tries to cross the southwest border of the United States?

A1: Migrants from all over the world attempt to cross into the United States from its southwest border, including those fleeing violence. However, the vast majority are from Mexico or the Northern Triangle of Central America. Most unaccompanied minors and families come from countries in the Northern Triangle, with a much smaller number coming from Mexico. In fact, CBP recorded the lowest number of arrests of people attempting to cross the southwest border in 2017 since 1971, with 303,916 apprehensions (this includes migrants of all nationalities). The number of unaccompanied minors at the border peaked in 2014, but CBP still apprehended 41,435 such children during the last fiscal year. However, it is not clear whether this means that fewer people are attempting to cross the border or more are successful in eluding CBP officers. The number of CBP officers stationed at the border has also decreased since its peak between 2011 and 2013. In 2017, about half of those apprehended at the border were from Mexico, with the other half made up mostly of migrants from the Northern Triangle.

Q2: Why are people detained at the border, and what happens to people when they are apprehended?

A2: Migrants can be detained by CBP at the border and placed in an immigration detention center if they have committed a U.S. crime, such as crossing the border illegally or overstaying a U.S. visa. However, they can also be placed in a detention center for not having proper documentation for an asylum request or are appealing a court asylum decision. Migrants often remain in detention for the duration of their immigration case, which can sometimes take several years. Once apprehended, migrants are placed in either short-term or long-term detention centers, which can be facilities run by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), privately run prisons, or local jails. Short-term detention centers are typically mass holding cells without beds and are sometimes kept at freezing temperatures.

There are three long-term detention facilities located in the United States (two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania) designated for families, which together total 4,000 beds. The Obama administration policy was to detain children with their parents in these facilities, but on April 6, 2018, the Trump administration announced a new policy that, until June 20, 2018, involved sending children to separate facilities from their parents upon apprehension. According to the Associated Press, “more than 2,300 minors [were] separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9.”

Unaccompanied children from Mexico at detention centers are evaluated by CBP officers to determine if they have a legitimate asylum case; if not, they are returned to Mexico to the custody of a government official or designee. Children from countries other than Mexico are supposed to be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours and await their removal proceedings. In a July 2015 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that “around 95.5% of Mexican children arriving alone to the United States are returned without ever having the opportunity to see an immigration judge.” Though children can be detained, a series of federal court decisions over the past two decades have determined that unaccompanied children may only be detained by the Department of Homeland Security for up to 20 days. U.S. law stipulates that the “best interest” of the child should always be the top consideration when it comes to child detainment, including providing them access to education and health care.

Q3: What drives migration to the United States from Mexico and the Northern Triangle?

A3: Poverty and violence continue to be the two major driving factors for migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Although Mexico has one of the largest economies in the world, it also has a high rate of income inequality, and almost half the population lives below the poverty line. Throughout the Northern Triangle, poverty rates in rural areas exceed 50 percent, and unemployment is high. Gang violence is pervasive in the Northern Triangle, with gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 controlling neighborhoods or even entire towns. These gangs extort businesses and kidnap and murder citizens. They often infiltrate police departments and local courts, meaning that they are rarely brought to justice. Citizens of the Northern Triangle pay millions of dollars in extortion fees to gangs, and homicide rates in the region are among the highest in the world. Women and children are especially at risk for fatal violence. Mexico and El Salvador are among the top 10 countries in the world with the highest female murder rates, and much of this violence is gang related. The high rate of violence is the main reason 110,000 people from the countries of the Northern Triangle have sought asylum in the United States, making them 3 of the top 10 countries of origin of asylum seekers in the United States.

Q4: What is on the docket for the Trump administration’s immigration policy?

A4: Although President Trump has received the most media coverage for his plans to build an $18 billion border wall and his revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, other immigration policies have had a greater impact on the southwest border.

One of the biggest changes thus far has been the implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy for all people attempting to cross the border illegally. Intended to deter migrants from coming to the United States in the first place, it resulted in criminal charges for adults and the separation of families with children. The policy of separating families at the border was ended through an Executive Order announced on June 20, 2018. However, another major shift is that those who cross the border at legal crossing points without proper documentation can now face criminal charges. They will wait (likely in a detention facility) to be tried in courts and face up to six months of jail time, after which they would be deported. Parents could still be separated from their children while serving their sentences. Furthermore, this shift will add significantly to the caseloads of immigration judges, who currently have an all-time-high backlog of 714,067 cases (a 32 percent increase since January 2017).

Broadly speaking, while the Obama administration strove to deport people as quickly as possible, the Trump administration has relied heavily on detention rather than deportation. President Trump’s 2019 budget request includes $2.7 billion for an additional 52,000 detention beds. The request also asks for 750 more CBP agents, 2,000 more ICE officers, and 75 more immigration judges. The detention policy has not yet reduced border apprehensions, which have increased 5 percent since the policy was implemented. Many analysts doubt the long-term effectiveness of detention as a deterrent to migrants.


Illegal migration across the southwest border has long vexed the United States, and recent administrations have taken different approaches to solving the challenge. Through its “zero tolerance” policy, the Trump administration has introduced its own method. However, it has already been forced to reconsider some aspects of that policy, including the separation of children from their parents. Ultimately, a successful policy for our southwest border will need to confront the roots of the migration from Mexico and the Northern Triangle (pervasive violence, economic recessions, etc.) rather than merely seek to address only the symptoms of the problem.

Richard G. Miles is director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative and deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Linnea Sandin is a research associate, and Sarah Baumunk a research assistant, with the CSIS Americas Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Linnea Sandin

Sarah Baumunk

Richard Miles