07/27/2018
Bill Ong Hing, ILRC Founder & General Counsel

As government agencies continue trying but failing to comply with a federal court order to reunite separated migrant children with their parents, it’s clear that President Trump entered new heights in immigration enforcement.

President Barack Obama was dubbed “Deporter-in-Chief” by immigrant rights advocates for good reason.[1] During his eight years in office, his administration formally removed more than three million noncitizens, compared to two million during George W. Bush’s tenure and about 900,000 in the Bill Clinton administration.[2] Even accounting for the removal of millions more without formal proceedings at the border under Bush and Clinton, Obama earned the title. He deserves credit for establishing DACA and providing prosecutorial discretion guidelines that allowed many undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States with their U.S. citizen spouses or children. But his administration removed a lot of noncitizens and upset many immigrant rights advocates by opening new family detention centers in the Southwest in response to the surge in migrants fleeing for their lives from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in 2014.

Enter Donald Trump. Given his immigration-related executive orders and the multitude of enforcement exploits by his administration, Trump has wrestled away the title of “Deporter-in-Chief” from Obama’s clutch. The Supreme Court has upheld version three of Trump’s travel ban, Temporary Protected Status has been terminated for Haitians, El Salvadorans, and Hondurans, threats of defunding sanctuary cities has resulted in increased cooperation by local law enforcement agencies, DACA is under threat, and he has unleashed enforcement-minded ICE agents to engage in seemingly random arrests and deportations striking fear in immigrant communities across the country.

Recent revelations of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border and corresponding separation of migrant children from their parents have propelled Trump into a zone of immigration enforcement never before witnessed. We now know that thousands of crying children—some of whom were infants—were directly or surreptitiously taken from their parents. While this was occurring, no one at the Department of Homeland Security nor the Office of Refugee Resettlement developed a system to keep track of the children and parents to address how families would be put back together.[3] The family separation policy was heartless and implemented as a deterrent, readily admitted by Trump who offered this “solution” to the problem created by his administration’s failure to reunite migrant children with their parents in a timely fashion: “Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.”[4]

Political and religious leaders have been appalled by the family separation policy. For example, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called the family separation policy “pure, unadulterated evil … cruel and barbaric.”[5] At least five governors, including two Republicans, refused to send their National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border to aid CBP.[6] Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called the separation practice “counter to our values.” [7] Former first lady Laura Bush labelled the policy “cruel” and “immoral.”[8] Catholic Bishops argued that “[s]eparating babies from their mothers … is immoral.”[9] The Mormon Church denounced the “aggressive and insensitive treatment” of the families.[10] Evangelical leaders “guided by the Bible,” asked Trump to reconsider the policy. Jewish leaders based their opposition against the policy “upon the Torah’s values.” The backlash to the family separation policy has sparked political and public calls to abolish ICE.

CEOs from companies like JPMorgan Chase, Facebook, and Airbnb denounced the practice; for example, Apple’s Tim Cook said the “heartbreaking” policy was “inhumane,” and the Business Roundtable criticized the action as “cruel” and “contrary to American values.”[11] Employees at Deloitte called for the firm to end its consulting for ICE, circulating a petition saying they have “moral objections” to the work.[12]

Of course, members of the public also expressed their moral outrage over the separation policy. Thousands of individuals protested against the policy across the country.[13] A Silicon Valley couple, intending to raise only $1500 on Facebook to cover the bond fees for one detained parent, received a staggering $20 million in donations by more than half a million contributors; the money was turned over to immigrant rights organizations.[14] Therese Patricia Okoumou, a Congolese immigrant, climbed to the base of the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July and refused to get down until “all children are released.”[15] Physicians for Human Rights charged that the family separation violated “fundamental human rights.”[16]

International condemnation of the practice also was swift. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the “cruel practice” of separating parents from their children at the border as an “unconscionable” child abuse.[17] UK Prime Minister Theresa May criticized the policy as “deeply disturbing [and] wrong.”[18] French President Emmanuel Macron noted: “We do not share the same model of civilization; clearly we don’t share certain values.”[19] Pope Francis called the separation policy “immoral.”[20] While Iran is often viewed as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights, even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the images of separation demonstrated “maliciousness.”[21]

While the president ordered a halt to the separation, he and his administration continue to pursue ways to deter and detain those fleeing violence at home. Many in his base continue unfazed by the heartlessness of family separation. However, the quantity and quality of opposition to Trump’s family separation policy is unprecedented.

President Trump will likely retain his title as Deportation King for years to come. However, his callous family separation policy has done more than solidify his hold on the “Deporter-in-Chief” title. His policies have gone far beyond simple dedication to removing noncitizens, attracting broad condemnation of his abuse of human rights. Trump’s clear transition into child abuse and violating fundamental human rights has earned him a new title: “Abuser-in-Chief.”

Bill Ong Hing is the founder and general counsel of the ILRC. He is a Professor of Law and Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco, and directs the USF Immigration & Deportation Clinic. His new book, American Presidents, Deportations, and Human Rights Violations will be published by Cambridge University Press in the Fall.




[1] Amanda Sakuma, Obama Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy on Immigration, NBC News, Apr. 17, 2015.

[2] Muzaffar Chishti, Sarah Pierce, and Jessica Bolter, The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not?, Migration Policy, Jan. 26, 2017.

[3] Maya Rhodan, What’s Keeping Migrant Families Apart, Time, July 23, 2018.

[4] John Wagner, Trump offers ‘a solution’ for separated migrant families: ‘Don’t come to our country illegally’, Washington Post, July 10, 2018.

[5] Jake Johnson, After Visiting Immigrant Mothers Detained By Trump, Pramila Jayapal Demands End to 'Cruel and Barbaric' Family Separation Policy, Common Dreams, June 10, 2018, www.commondreams.org/news/2018/06/10/after-visiting-immigrant-mothers-de...

[6] Amita Kelly, Opposing Family Separation, Governors Cancel National Guard Troops On The Border, NPR, June 19, 2018.

[7] Marilyn Icsman, Sen. Portman calls Trump administration's family separation policy 'counter to our values, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 18, 2018.

[8] Nomaan Merchant, The Latest: First ladies criticize border family separation, Wtop, June 18, 2018, https://wtop.com/national/2018/06/the-latest-ex-trump-adviser-questions-...

[9] Patrick T. Fallon, Catholic bishops issue scathing statement on Trump's family separation policy, Reuters, June 14, 2018.

[10] Church Statement on Separation of Families at the US-Mexico Border, LDS Newsroom, June 18, 2018, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-statement-separation-of-fa...

[11] Gerrit De Vynck, Tech CEOs Voice Opposition to Family Separations at Border, Bloomberg, June 19, 2018.

[12] Michael Forsythe and Walt Bogdanich, Employees Call on Deloitte to Stop Working With ICE, NY Times, July 12, 2018.

[13] See, e.g., Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and Zoe Greenberg, Protests Across U.S. Call for End to Migrant Family Separations, NY Times, June 30, 2018.

[14] Jessica Guynn, Facebook fundraiser to help immigrant children tops $20 million with global donations, USA Today, June 18, 2018.

[15] Maria Perez, Statue of Liberty Climber Says She Was Inspired By Michelle Obama Quote, Newsweek, July 6, 2018.

[16] Sign the Letter Opposing Separation of Families, Physicians for Human Rights, June 2018, secure.phr.org/secure/family-separation-sign-letter

[17] Noah Lanard, UN Human Rights Chief: Family Separations Forced by Trump Administration Are Child Abuse, Mother Jones, June 18, 2018.

[18] Alex Ward, How the world is reacting to Trump’s family separation policy, Vox, June 20, 2018, www.vox.com/world/2018/6/20/17483738/trump-family-separation-border-trud...

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.