News·4 min read

'Zero Tolerance' Policy: Immigration explained

June 22, 2018

The Story

You’ve read the stories, seen the pictures, and heard the audio. President Trump's “zero tolerance” policy was separating kids at the border. Let's break it down.

Start at the beginning.

Hundreds of thousands of people have made the trek to the US-Mexico border this year. Many of them are migrants from places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Back home, they’re dealing with things like violence, poverty, and drug cartels. Once they reach the border they may seek asylum.

Yeah...go into that.

Migrant...a person who voluntarily moves to a new place to find a better life, find work, or reunite with family. given to non-citizens. But it’s a temporary status. You apply for asylum, then the gov has to look at your application. If you get the stamp of approval, then you’re considered a refugee.

Refugee...a person who the gov grants protection to because going back home is too dangerous. Refugees are typically fleeing violence or persecution because of things like their race or religion. And are protected by a 1951 international law.

Got it. Where did the Trump admin come in?

Earlier this year, the DOJ announced a new "zero tolerance" policy. Meaning: every adult caught that illegally crossing the border was taken into custody and prosecuted (even those seeking asylum). And every child was separated and looked after by a gov agency.

How many kids has this affected?

A lot. In a five-week span between April and May more than 2,500 kids were separated. We got an inside look at some of the detention centers and shelters where they’re being held. The pictures show chain-link fences, mattresses on the floor, and thermal blankets. One former Walmart in Brownsville, TX was holding nearly 1,500 migrant boys.

What happened to them?

Since these kids were no longer with their families, they were considered unaccompanied, and put in the care of a gov agency called the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The ORR tried to find them a sponsor – a parent, family member, family friend, etc, who could take them in.

How have past administrations dealt with it?

GW Bush...had a similar "zero tolerance" policy called “Operation Streamline.” But made exceptions for adults traveling with kids.

Obama...typically detained families together or let them go. He got a lot of flak after pics came out of families being detained. Sound familiar?

So why'd Trump change it up?

The Trump admin said there were too many loopholes. That since past admins have made exceptions for families, some people are crossing with kids that aren't their own. And by setting up a "zero tolerance" policy it could send a message to other migrants not to come illegally.

But then he changed his mind?

Yeah. Because he got heat from pretty much everyone – from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to First Lady Melania Trump to Pope Francis. Plus Trump said he didn't like "the sight or the feeling" of families being separated.

What was the new policy?

The "zero tolerance" policy is still a thing. But Trump signed an executive order so families can stick together while they're in custody and get their cases sped up. Some families have been reunited but hundreds of kids are still separated and in government custody because their parents were deported.

Is that all?

Not really. There's still a legal issue at play. Trump's trying to get around the 1997 Flores settlement that says kids can only spend 20 days max in detention centers, even if they're with their parents. Obama got flak for how he handled this too. If Trump gets around Flores, that means kids may be held indefinitely (cue: legal problems). If he doesn't, that means kids may be separated after 20 days (cue: legal problems).

Where's Congress in all this?

Trying (and failing) to pass an immigration bill. The bill would include a legislative fix to separating kids at the border. But also address a fix for DACA, how to keep the border secure, ways to end child migration, and a makeover to the visa lottery system. But this is something Congress has been trying to pass for a don’t hold your breath.


Trump is not the first president to get called out over border policy. But his policy to separate kids from their families caused outrage from Democrats, Republicans, and the public. Now, his admin is navigating how to 'get tough' on immigration, without separating families.

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.