Were children separated from their parents when they were caught on the Mexican border by US officials as illegal immigrants before Trump's introduction of zero tolerance immigration policy?

I wasn't able to find other source of that information than the reactions to the removed tweet of one of the former members of the administration.

  • I'm sure I've seen this question more than once on here already. Can somebody confirm?
    – GordonM
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 8:58

3 Answers 3



Probably less of them than under Trump but there were kids in cages and kids separated from their families under Obama.

Those photos of immigrant children “caged” by the US? They’re from 2014

(bias check)

enter image description here

"Immigrant girls sleep in a cell, Jun. 18, 2014."

Also, here's a pbs article from 2016 with the same image:



Update, June 18: Since this story was published, new photos have been released by the US Customs and Border Protection, revealing current detainment conditions for immigrants apprehended at the border. The current conditions closely resemble the Obama-era “cages” depicted in photos from 2014. In both cases, children are shown separated from their families, sleeping on the floor within steel-wire enclosures.


(bias check)

33,000 complaints between 2010 and 2016 alleging a wide range of abuses in immigration detention.


sexual assault and harassment in immigration detention are not only widespread but systemic


In 2014, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a complaint reporting widespread allegations of sexual harassment at the Karnes County Residential Center, also in Texas, where more than 500 women were detained with their children.


In 2014, amid an influx of asylum seekers from Central America, the administration established large family detention centers to hold parents and children — potentially indefinitely — as a means of deterring other asylees.


Immigration experts we spoke to said Obama-era policies did lead to some family separations


some children were separated from their parents under Obama, this was relatively rare, and occurred at a far lower rate than under Trump

Trump correctly tweets that Democrats mistakenly tweeted photo of child migrants being held in 2014

To address a point that came up in the comments.

Were illegal immigrants without criminal records for anything else arrested under obama:

Over the first full 14 months of the Trump administration, 69% of undocumented immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had a criminal record. Over the final two years of the Obama administration, that number was 86%.

ICE agents have arrested an average of 4,143 undocumented immigrants without a criminal record each month under the Trump administration. In the final two years under Obama, the agents averaged 1,703 a month.

Those numbers show the radical change in immigration enforcement implemented by President Trump, who issued new directives to ICE shortly after taking office in January 2017.

ICE arresting more non-criminal undocumented immigrants

So 14% of immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Obama didn't have a criminal record other than that related to immigrating illegally.

  • 48
    @FrownyFrog That was a rethoric question. What I'm trying to put in evidence is that there are a lot of ruckus because of the word "cage", in an attempt to link what is done to those children to what is done to animals. If you use the word "cell", which would be the correct one in this context, the "power" of the claim gets really diminished. There is a reason why they don't call "cells" in prision "cages".
    – T. Sar
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 12:20
  • 6
    @T.Sar one definition of "cage" from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition: "A barred room or fenced enclosure for confining prisoners." Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 14:44
  • 34
    @jinglesthula Indeed. but what dictionaries don't account for is the emotional value attached to a given word. The more usual context for using the word "cage" is when referring to animals, or being treated like one, and that's the imagery you invoke when using that word. Don't get me wrong - this situation is very sad, but I dislike how the author of the original claim picked a specific word to make it way worse than what it is.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 15:00
  • 26
    @T.Sar To me, it looks like a cage because all the walls are wire fences (including the roof, I think), as opposed to a cell, which is a more permanent construct, essentially a room inside a jail or prison.
    – gerrit
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 15:44
  • 7
    Do you have a source for "probably less"? Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 17:38

Were children separated from their parents when they were caught on the Mexican border by US officials as illegal immigrants before Trump's introduction of zero tolerance immigration policy?

Yes, children were held in cages. No, this did not happen if their parents were merely illegal immigrants. Obama-era policy was that illegal immigrants with children would only be prosecuted (and hence separated from their children) if they had committed some other crime, such as bringing in illegal drugs. They were not separated if they were caught as illegal immigrants.

Trump has now turned this into a "zero tolerance" policy in which any crime, including illegal immigration, is prosecuted, leading to families being broken up merely for crossing the border. This also applies to families seeking asylum: people who appear at the legal crossing points and ask for asylum are turned away, and thus denied their right to asylum. However if they cross into the US illegally, find a border officer, and request asylum, they are deemed to have entered illegally and prosecuted.

Edit: New information 9 Dec 2019. Senator Jeff Merkley has released a leaked document which he says shows that this was all a deliberate policy by the Trump administration to break up families as a deterrent to migrants. The document also talks about prosecuting relatives in the USA who attempt to sponsor child migrants:

The memo goes on to describe how to effectively deter family and other caretakers from coming forward to sponsor children while their asylum cases proceed, keeping children in detention longer. Specially, one senior administration official said

“I would suggest referring sponsors for criminal prosecution… if information indicates that the sponsor facilitated the travel of the minor into the United States.” Another official says “This would result in a deterrent impact on “sponsors.” (p.2)

  • 5
    The last part of the top answer directly contradicts your claim that "No, this did not happen if their parents were merely illegal immigrants". Evidence for your claim that contradicts the other answer?
    – Jim Clay
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 15:40
  • 3
    @JimClay No it doesn't contradict it. The figures are for arrested migrants with a criminal record, i.e. a conviction that predates their current arrest. Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 15:51
  • 4
    "Over the first full 14 months of the Trump administration, 69% of undocumented immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had a criminal record. Over the final two years of the Obama administration, that number was 86%." Unless I am misunderstanding this, this implies that 14% of the arrested immigrants during the last two years of Obama's administration did not have criminal records.
    – Jim Clay
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 16:54
  • 4
    @JimClay Yes, that 14% did not have a prior conviction, but that does not mean that they were not arrested for committing a crime other than illegal entry. Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 7:20
  • 1
    The bottom line is American governments put children in cages.
    – PatrickT
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 7:40

Stripping the polarizing, partisanship away: Yes it is well documented in photos, ICE documents, and statements by Obama officials that the Obama administration did indeed practice the same detainment techniques as the Trump administration- which is all the original poster asked.
Sources: Obama official Cecilia Muñoz, Jon Favreau, speechwriter for former President Barack Obama

"I tweeted a story that multiple journalists were posting. My mistake for not checking the date first. A few minutes later, when I realized my error, I deleted the tweet and immediately tweeted the correct info and date of the picture." (Faveau quote after discovering that the picture he tweeted of detained children was actually taken during the Obama administration) https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2018/may/29/donald-trump/trump-correctly-tweets-democrats-mistakenly-tweete/

Cecilia Munoz Twitter Thread: Thread "These are the shelters that have been set up for unaccompanied migrant kids. Remember the summer of 2014? There was an unexpected spike in the number of kids coming to the US alone. They stayed in terrible border patrol lockups because HHS ran out of shelter space." Twitter account Cecilia Munoz 6/16/18

  • 1
    It would be helpful to actually include quotes from Muñoz and Favreau supporting what you are saying. Firstly, it shows the sources support you, and secondly it helps avoid link rot.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 5:08
  • "which is all the original poster asked" the original poster put it in terms of treatment of illegal immigrants. The other answers show (in contradiction to your statement) that they were not the same policies as Trump's administration, while directly confirming that the Obama administration policies were still problematic in the same way.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 5:14
  • 1
    AGAIN, taking bias and partisanship out of the answers, Obama officials admitted that the pictures attributed to the Trump administration of children in "cages" were indeed taken during their tenure. They have an explanation for them, but that wasn't part of the original question. They also go on to say that it wasn't their wish to do so, but again, not part of the original question.
    – Possum-Pie
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 15:40
  • Sorry, but equating a process used to deal with children who were unaccompanied with the act of separating children from their parents seems to be the opposite of "taking partisanship and bias.out." Context matters and creating false equivalence is not objective.. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 15:58

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