April 20, 2021

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From ‘zero tolerance’ to now: How America’s migrant policies have changed in the Trump and Biden years

13 min read

WASHINGTON – Dozens of children on floor mats, covered with Mylar blankets and crowded side-by-side in a holding facility. Families huddled under a bridge as they await processing at the U.S.-Mexico line. And lawmakers standing outside a border facility, spouting their outrage over the conditions.

These scenes, common under the Trump administration, continue to play out as thousands of migrant families, children and adults head to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes to come to the United States – even as border laws keep changing.

America’s policies toward migrants at the southern border kept shifting over the past four years as the U.S. pivoted from former President Donald Trump’s rigid immigration views to President Joe Biden’s less-restrictive positions. Add to that the increasing numbers of migrants and unaccompanied children coming to the border and the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Trump implemented several hardline immigration policies, including a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from parents who crossed illegally through the U.S.-Mexico border. While many of those policies have changed under Biden, the images of families and children at the border continue to be reminiscent of the previous administration and showcase issues the U.S. faces when dealing with immigration policy.

The Biden administration is currently accepting unaccompanied migrant children into the United States, while turning away most adults under a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which allows Customs and Border Protection to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities. But now Mexico isn’t accepting some families back, leading the Biden administration to begin accepting some families with small children.

Here’s how policies on immigration have changed from the last administration to now:

Increase in migrants before Trump inauguration

Trump made immigration a prominent part of his agenda throughout his four years in office. During his 2016 presidential campaign, he often criticized migrants and promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After winning the election, an increase in migrants tried to come to the United States ahead of his inauguration.

From top: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks birth certificates while taking Central American immigrants into detention on Jan. 4, 2017, near McAllen, Texas. An immigrant ties his shoes after receiving his laces back from the U.S. Border Patrol before being deported into Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas, on March 14, 2017. Immigrants are deported across an international bridge into Mexico on March 14, 2017, from Hidalgo. On Oct. 19, 2017, a group of people are detained by Border Patrol agents on horseback after crossing the border illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, near where prototypes for a border wall, right, were being constructed in San Diego.
From top: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks birth certificates while taking Central American immigrants into detention on Jan. 4, 2017, near McAllen, Texas. An immigrant ties his shoes after receiving his laces back from the U.S. Border Patrol before being deported into Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas, on March 14, 2017. Immigrants are deported across an international bridge into Mexico on March 14, 2017, from Hidalgo. On Oct. 19, 2017, a group of people are detained by Border Patrol agents on horseback after crossing the border illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, near where prototypes for a border wall, right, were being constructed in San Diego.
Clockwise, from top left: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks birth certificates while taking Central American immigrants into detention on Jan. 4, 2017, near McAllen, Texas. An immigrant ties his shoes after receiving his laces back from the U.S. Border Patrol before being deported into Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas, on March 14, 2017. On Oct. 19, 2017, a group of people are detained by Border Patrol agents on horseback after crossing the border illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, near where prototypes for a border wall, right, were being constructed in San Diego. Immigrants are deported across an international bridge into Mexico on March 14, 2017, from Hidalgo.
John Moore, Getty Images; Gregory Bull, AP
Trump deploys military

Trump deployed the military to the U.S.-Mexico border in October 2018 because a group of migrants was heading to the United States’ southern border from Central America. The group of migrants, which Trump often referred to as a caravan, were mostly people from Honduras fleeing violence and poverty. As the group made its way up north, it grew in size.

From top: Members of a U.S. Army engineering brigade place Concertina wire around an encampment for troops, Department of Defense and U.S. Customs and Border Protection near the U.S.-Mexico International bridge, on Nov. 4, 2018, in Donna, Texas. U.S. Army vehicles and tents at a military camp under construction at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 7, 2018, in Donna.
From top: Members of a U.S. Army engineering brigade place Concertina wire around an encampment for troops, Department of Defense and U.S. Customs and Border Protection near the U.S.-Mexico International bridge, on Nov. 4, 2018, in Donna, Texas. U.S. Army vehicles and tents at a military camp under construction at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 7, 2018, in Donna.
Members of a U.S. Army engineering brigade place Concertina wire around an encampment for troops, Department of Defense and U.S. Customs and Border Protection near the U.S.-Mexico International bridge, on Nov. 4, 2018, in Donna, Texas. U.S. Army vehicles and tents at a military camp under construction at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 7, 2018, in Donna.
Eric Gay, AP; John Moore, Getty Images
Asylum policy changes 

In November 2018, Trump implemented a policy that barred migrants from claiming asylum if they entered the United States between border checkpoints. The policy went against U.S. and international law, which says migrants are allowed to seek asylum regardless of whether they do it at an official checkpoint or not. Although initial court rulings allowed the policy to continue in some states, a federal court in September 2019 blocked the policy nationwide.

‘Zero tolerance’

In April 2018, the Trump administration implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents who were seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to deter migrants from coming to the U.S. More than 4,300 families were separated under the policy. 

Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 halting the policy. However, a limited number of families were still separated throughout the rest of Trump’s presidency. Hundreds of parents were still missing from their children when Biden took office because officials did not properly track children who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration. Biden has since created a task force to reunite children who were separated from their parents.

A 2-year-old girl cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

A 2-year-old girl cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.
John Moore, Getty Images

‘Remain in Mexico’

Trump in January 2019 implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as “Remain in Mexico,” which forced migrants to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. The policy caused many migrants to stay in dangerous Mexican border towns with some becoming victims of violence. 

TOP: Sixteen Central American migrants cross the International Bridge II to be interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities and have the possibility of receiving asylum, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on Feb. 16, 2019. ABOVE: Migrant women and children look through donated clothes for items they can wear in the courtyard of one of the Nuevo Laredo shelters for migrants seeking asylum run by El Buen Samaritano Church of Laredo.
TOP: Sixteen Central American migrants cross the International Bridge II to be interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities and have the possibility of receiving asylum, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on Feb. 16, 2019. ABOVE: Migrant women and children look through donated clothes for items they can wear in the courtyard of one of the Nuevo Laredo shelters for migrants seeking asylum run by El Buen Samaritano Church of Laredo.
LEFT: Sixteen Central American migrants cross the International Bridge II to be interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities and have the possibility of receiving asylum, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on Feb. 16, 2019. RIGHT: Migrant women and children look through donated clothes for items they can wear in the courtyard of one of the Nuevo Laredo shelters for migrants seeking asylum run by El Buen Samaritano Church of Laredo.
JULIO CESAR AGUILAR, AFP/GETTY IMAGES; Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
On Aug. 30, 2019, migrants, many who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" program, wait in line to get a meal in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.

On Aug. 30, 2019, migrants, many who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, wait in line to get a…
On Aug. 30, 2019, migrants, many who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, wait in line to get a meal in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.
Veronica G. Cardenas, AP
Trump’s pressure on Mexico

Trump in March 2019 pressured Mexico to do more to stop migrants from coming to the United States. Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border and implement tariffs against Mexico. Mexico increased security at its border with Guatemala.

TOP: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge await processing on March 28, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. ABOVE: A U.S. Border Patrol agent talks with detained migrants at the border of the United States and Mexico on March 31, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
TOP: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge await processing on March 28, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. ABOVE: A U.S. Border Patrol agent talks with detained migrants at the border of the United States and Mexico on March 31, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
LEFT: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge await processing on March 28, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. RIGHT: A U.S. Border Patrol agent talks with detained migrants at the border of the United States and Mexico on March 31, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
CHRIST CHAVEZ and Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Overcrowded and unhygienic conditions

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report in July 2019 that showed overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at five processing centers in Texas. Children were also kept at those processing facilities longer than 72 hours. By law, children are supposed to be moved out of CBP custody within 72 hours.

“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained,” the report said.

These images from an Inspector General report highlight dangerous overcrowding inside Border Patrol stations along the southern border. TOP: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General made surprise visits to the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center Border Patrol processing facility in El Paso, Texas, on May 7 and 8. Among other evidence of poor holding conditions, the OIG found that the facility was holding 750-900 migrants despite a maximum capacity of 125 detainees. ABOVE: Migrant families overcrowding a Border Patrol facility on June 10, 2019, in McAllen, Texas, and June 11, 2019, in Weslaco, Texas.
These images from an Inspector General report highlight dangerous overcrowding inside Border Patrol stations along the southern border. TOP: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General made surprise visits to the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center Border Patrol processing facility in El Paso, Texas, on May 7 and 8. Among other evidence of poor holding conditions, the OIG found that the facility was holding 750-900 migrants despite a maximum capacity of 125 detainees. ABOVE: Migrant families overcrowding a Border Patrol facility on June 10, 2019, in McAllen, Texas, and June 11, 2019, in Weslaco, Texas.
These images from an Inspector General report highlight dangerous overcrowding inside Border Patrol stations along the southern border. LEFT: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General made surprise visits to the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center Border Patrol processing facility in El Paso, Texas, on May 7 and 8. Among other evidence of poor holding conditions, the OIG found that the facility was holding 750-900 migrants despite a maximum capacity of 125 detainees. RIGHT: Migrant families overcrowding a Border Patrol facility on June 10, 2019, in McAllen, Texas, and June 11, 2019, in Weslaco, Texas.
OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL
New asylum policy and ICE raids

In July 2019, Trump implemented a policy that would not allow migrants to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they passed through another country first. While a majority of migrants are from Central America, and would have to pass through Mexico, migrants seeking asylum are also coming from Africa, Cuba and Haiti.

Central American migrant families arrive at a Catholic Charities respite center after being released from federal detention in McAllen, Texas.

Central American migrant families arrive at a Catholic Charities respite center after being released from federal detention in McAllen, Texas.
LOREN ELLIOTT, AFP/Getty Images

As part of his crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States, raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement increased. In August 2019, ICE raided seven chicken plants in Mississippi, where hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested. Some were mothers who were still breastfeeding their young babies, as well as single parents.

On Aug. 7, 2019, Homeland Security Investigations officers guard suspected undocumented migrants who were unlawfully working at seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi.
On Aug. 7, 2019, Homeland Security Investigations officers guard suspected undocumented migrants who were unlawfully working at seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi.
On Aug. 7, 2019, Homeland Security Investigations officers guard suspected undocumented migrants who were unlawfully working at seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi.
AFP PHOTO/US IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT
The start of Title 42

In March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted a policy, Title 42, that allowed the CBP to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of the virus in holding facilities. The majority of migrants, including children, were deported under that policy.

Verty plays with his 1-year-old daughter while his wife Saint Jean fixes the house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Aug. 25, 2020. The Trump administration had sharply increased its use of hotels to detain immigrant children before expelling them from the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. Verty says government contractors at a hotel where he was detained gave his family, including his daughter, cups of ice to eat to pass temperature checks prior to their deportation flight, even though they had tested negative for COVID-19.

Verty plays with his 1-year-old daughter while his wife Saint Jean fixes the house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Aug. 25, 2020. The Trump administration had…
Verty plays with his 1-year-old daughter while his wife Saint Jean fixes the house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Aug. 25, 2020. The Trump administration had sharply increased its use of hotels to detain immigrant children before expelling them from the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. Verty says government contractors at a hotel where he was detained gave his family, including his daughter, cups of ice to eat to pass temperature checks prior to their deportation flight, even though they had tested negative for COVID-19.
Dieu Nalio Chery, AP
Biden takes over

Within days of Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20, he halted construction of the border wall, stopped the Migrant Protection Protocol and his administration began processing individuals who were part of the policy. 

Although Biden is continuing to keep Title 42 in place, his administration is now accepting children. However, the Biden administration has struggled to quickly move children out of CBP custody and into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services while HHS vets sponsors and family members for the children. Many children are being kept in jail-like facilities that are overcrowded and hundreds of children are being kept in those facilities longer than the 72-hour limit.

Minors play soccer on a field at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility run by the Customs and Border Patrol on March 30, 2021, in Donna, Texas. The Donna location is the main detention center for unaccompanied children coming across the U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley. Minors talk to an agent outside a pod. Young unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen.
Minors play soccer on a field at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility run by the Customs and Border Patrol on March 30, 2021, in Donna, Texas. The Donna location is the main detention center for unaccompanied children coming across the U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley. Minors talk to an agent outside a pod. Young unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen.
Clockwise, from top left, minors play soccer on a field at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility run by the Customs and Border Patrol on March 30, 2021, in Donna, Texas. Minors talk to an agent outside a pod. Young unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen. The Donna location is the main detention center for unaccompanied children coming across the U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley.
JOHN MOORE, GETTY IMAGES; DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS, POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In January, a Mexican law stopped the United States from turning away migrant families with young children at some parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, as the Mexican government was no longer accepting children and families to their government-run facilities. The Biden administration has noted it has accepted some families, but other families are still being expelled to Mexico.

Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday, March 19, 2021, in Mission, Texas.
Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday, March 19, 2021, in Mission, Texas.
Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday, March 19, 2021, in Mission, Texas.
JULIO CORTEZ, AP
The surge

An increase in migrants coming to the U.S. drew the nation’s attention back to the border earlier this year.

The Biden administration has experienced an uptick in migrants coming to the border, including unaccompanied children. As of Friday, 5,381 unaccompanied children were in CBP custody and 13,359 unaccompanied children were in HHS custody.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized Biden for his response to the surge coming to the United States.

With many of the CBP facilities overcrowded, Democratic lawmakers said they want to see the Biden administration quickly move children to their sponsors. Republican lawmakers, however, have criticized Biden for undoing many of Trump’s policies, saying that is what led to the increase. Republicans have also called on Biden to visit the border, something the president has yet to do.

For months, the Biden administration has limited press from touring the HHS and CBP facilities. Late last month, CBS and other media outlets were able to tour a CBP facility in Donna, Texas. Children could be seen sleeping on mats on the floor with Mylar blankets. Many of the pods holding the children were overcrowded and some children could be seen playing soccer outside on an AstroTurf field.

Biden announced last month Vice President Kamala Harris would take the lead in working with Central American countries to help mitigate migration at the border.

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

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