The United States Government has recently come under intense scrutiny for the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Denounced by many as overly harsh, President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which calls for the criminal prosecution of those who enter the United States illegally, has undoubtedly brought the issue of family separation to the forefront of United States Immigration Law. In response to news reports and public outcry related to immigrant children being separated from their families at the border, on June 20, 2018, the President signed Executive Order No. 13,841. See 83 Fed. Reg. 29435 (2018) (the “Executive Order”). Nevertheless, many Americans are still confused as to what the Executive Order does and whether it will affect them.
First, it is important to understand the history that led to the creation of the Executive Order. After years of litigation over the issue of detention of immigrant children throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, in 1997, the Clinton administration eventually entered into a settlement agreement in the case of Flores v. Reno (the “Flores Settlement”). See, e.g., Flores v. Reno, 681 F. Supp. 665 (C.D. Cal. 1997). Under the terms of the Flores Settlement, the Government established minimum standards for initial detention of minors, created procedures allowing minors to contact detained family members, and established a policy favoring the release of minors to their close family relatives.
To make matters even more complicated, two (2) subsequent court rulings further held that the Flores Settlement applied to all minors unlawfully crossing the border, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, and that the Government had to process the asylum claims of those minors within an average of 20 days. See, e.g., Flores v. Lynch, 828 F.3d 898 (9th Cir. 2016). Simply put, these court rulings had the practical effect of either (1) requiring the Government to release entire families from detention after 20 days and during the pendency of their removal proceedings (the so-called “catch-and-release” policy) or (2) requiring the Government to separate families via detaining adults in one set of detention facilities and sending children to be placed in the custody of other family members or the Department of Health and Human Services.