El Paso Politics recently reported, that El Paso immigration judges are among the worst in the nation for asylum seekers. Various news outlets are reporting that justice department officials drove the immigration policy of separating children from their parents as part of the Trump Administration surge to control the border. The New York Times states that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told immigration prosecutors that “we need to take away children.” [1]

Like the difficulty that asylum seekers are having in El Paso, Texas, the child separation policy has its nexus in El Paso, as well as the controversial Border Patrol BORTAC team. The child separation policy goes back to 2017, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle. [2] The Houston Chronicle “identified 22 cases” since June 22, 2017 where children were removed from their parents by immigration officials.

Although the family separation has become a hot button issue recently, the policy of separating children is part of the Border Patrol 2012 strategic plan. The Border Patrol implemented a program called the Consequence Delivery System (CDS). Under the CDS, agents followed the process “to uniquely evaluate each subject and identify the ideal consequence to break the smuggling cycle.” The CDS was designed to discourage future illegal immigration. [4]

To deter illegal immigration, Trump administration immigration officials began discussing separating children from their parents as early as 2017. “Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children,” according to officials who were quoted Reuters in March 2017. [5]

Family Separation in El Paso Since 2017

On October 21, 2017, a woman and her child from El Salvador was apprehended in El Paso by immigration agents. The next day, October 22, 2017, a man from Honduras was arrested, along with his son in El Paso. A woman, also from Honduras, was also arrested with her granddaughter. On October 23, 2017, another man from Honduras, also with his son, was also detained by immigration officials in El Paso. That same evening, a woman from El Salvador was also detained in El Paso by immigration officials. With her was her son.

That October 2017, five individuals were arrested, along with juvenile family members, in El Paso, Texas.

All were charged with committing a criminal offense. The juveniles were processed as “unaccompanied juveniles,” thus separated from the adults they were with. [6] This was the El Paso Pilot Program.

On May 7, 2018, Jeff Sessions announced in a Department of Justice news release that the Trump administration was now implementing a “zero tolerance” policy against illegal immigration. Under the policy, “100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings” would be referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

The El Paso Pilot Program

Wesley Farris, a high-ranking officer with El Paso’s Border Patrol Union, told PBS Frontline that separating children from their family “was the most horrible thing” he had ever done. [7] El Paso became the test bed for “zero tolerance” by taking children away from parents.

On June 29, 2018, NBC News reported that between October 2016 and February 2018, 1,768 children were taken from their parents. [9]

A DHS official confirmed to NBC News that “from July 2017 to October 2017, the Trump administration ran what the official called a ‘pilot program’ for zero tolerance in El Paso”. [9]

Scott Shuchart, a senior advisor to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2010 to 2018 said on a July 24, 2019 PBS interview that there were rumors of child separations in El Paso but officials were denying it. [8]

Although news agencies were reporting that an El Paso program existed, when Shuchart asked Customs and Border Protection for information at several meetings about the increased number of family separations they got no information, although the item was on the agenda. About the El Paso program, the CBP leadership denied that such a program existed. [8]

The pilot program in El Paso classified children as “unaccompanied” although they were with family members when immigration officials intercepted them. [9] Officials, using the 2012 Consequence Delivery System program began prosecuting all immigrants caught illegally crossing the border. The El Paso pilot program was launched in July of 2017. [9]

There was no official announcement. It was El Paso immigration attorneys that noted that migrants were suddenly reporting that their children were being taken away. [9] On October 24, 2017, Beto O’Rourke facilitated a meeting between immigration activists and lawyers and government officials. The government officials were asked about the separation policy in El Paso. At the meeting, the attendees were told that children 10 years old or older could be separated. [9]

A few days later, immigration officials clarified to the group that the “Border Patrol does not have a blanket policy requiring the separation of family units.” Officials added that “any increase in separated family units” was due to an “increase in prosecutions of immigration related crimes.” Prior to the El Paso pilot program, officials had no official policy separating children from parents, except for medical or other reasons, including criminal prosecutions. [9]

However, that explanation ignored the 2012 Consequence Delivery System policy of applying punitive actions on immigrants, even first-time border crossers, to discourage future attempts. The family separation program was part of the CDS effort to discourage future border crossings.

El Paso was the test bed to see how it could be implemented.

After the El Paso pilot program ended, Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein and Gene Hamilton, “an ally of Stephen Miller,” all “pushed aggressively to expand the practice across the entire southwest border.” [1]

In April 2018, the “zero tolerance” program was started. The government’s goal “was to create a more effective deterrent so that everyone would believe that they had a risk of being prosecuted.” [1]

It was the 2012 Consequence Delivery System plan in a nut shell.

El Paso Had Second Highest Family Unit Cases

A GAO report released in February 2020 found that El Paso had the second largest number of apprehended immigrant families for fiscal years 2016, 2017, 2018 and the first two quarters of 2019 combined. At 245,914, Rio Grande Valley, Texas had the most cases of apprehended immigrant families for the period reported by the GAO. El Paso, with 81,587 was second in the study. [10]

What is important to note about the GAO report is that in the first two quarters of 2019, El Paso saw a significant increase of family unit apprehensions at 53,662 for the two quarters. In 2018, the El Paso apprehensions were 13, 701. For 2017 they were 8,607 and for 2016 they were 5,617. [10]

For the study period, the report points out that most family unit apprehensions were centered at four ports: San Ysidro, El Paso, Hidalgo and Nogales.


  1. Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner and Michael S. Schmidt, “’We Need to Take Away Children,’ No Matter How Young, Justice Dept. Officials Said,” The New York Times, October 6, 2020.
  2. Lomi Kriel, “Trump moves to end ‘catch and release,’ prosecuting parents and removing children who cross border,” Houston Chronicle, November 25, 2017.
  3. 2012 – 2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  4. Julia Edwards Ainsley, “Exclusive: Trump administration considering separating women, children at Mexico border,” Reuters, March 3, 2017.
  5. United States v. Elba Luz Dominguez-Portillo, Maynor Alonso Claudino Lopez, Jose Francis Yanes-Mancia, Natividad Zavala-Zavala, and Blanca Nieve Vasquez-Hernandez case nos: EP:17-MJ-04409, EP:17-MJ-04456, EP:17-MJ-04461, EP:17-MJ-04462, EP:17-MJ-04499, United States District Court, Western District, November 20, 2017.
  6. Patrice Taddonio, “’The Most Horrible Thing I’ve Ever Done”: A Border Patrol Officer Who Separated Families Speaks Out,” PBS – Frontline, January 7, 2020.
  7. Scott Shuchart, (Office for the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2010 to 2018), PBS Frontline interview transcript, July 24, 2019.
  8. Lisa Riodan Seville and Hannah Rappleye, “Trump admin ran ‘pilot program’ for separating migrant families in 2017,” NBC News, June 29, 2018.
  9. “Southwest Border, Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHS,” United States Government Accounting Office, Report to Congressional Requestors, February 2020.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

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