President Barack Obama did not oversee the separation of 90,000 migrant children and their parents at the U.S. border, contrary to a misleading online report and claims circulating on social media.
The claim, published on a conservative website, was repeated on social media throughout the week as President Donald Trump faced criticism over his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has left more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the U.S. border since May.
The false claim appears to stem from a January 2016 Senate subcommittee report that investigated how the Department of Health and Human Services, under the Obama administration, placed thousands of unaccompanied children illegally entering the country.
The subcommittee report found that from October 2013 through 2015 the federal agency placed nearly 90,000 children with a sponsor, after they were detained at the border without a legal guardian. The majority of those sponsors, the report found, were a parent or legal guardian living in the country. No specific numbers were provided in the report. HHS did not respond to the AP’s request for that information.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday separating families is not new, but acknowledged that the Obama administration and that of President George W. Bush did so at a lesser rate. Past administrations, Nielsen said, separated families at the border when federal agents suspected the adult of human trafficking, smuggling, posing a national security risk or when the adult’s relationship to the child could not be verified. Nielsen acknowledged the Trump administration implemented a new policy of separating children and re-classifying them as “unaccompanied” when federal agents refer the parents for criminal prosecution.
Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner from early 2014 to the end of Obama’s term, said parents were split from their children if they were arrested on drug charges, for example, or had an outstanding warrant.