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Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde November 29, 2018

Donald Trump falsely says family separations were Obama policy

Despite President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the Obama administration separated immigrant children from their parents at the border the same way the Trump administration did, the facts remain unchanged: that’s not true.

Family separations under the Obama administration did happen, but immigration experts say they were relatively rare; under Trump’s administration they were the systematic result of a policy to prosecute all immigrants who crossed illegally into the United States.

Trump on Nov. 25 tweeted:

".@60Minutes did a phony story about child separation when they know we had the exact same policy as the Obama Administration. In fact a picture of children in jails was used by other Fake Media to show how bad (cruel) we are, but it was in 2014 during O years. Obama separated....

....children from parents, as did Bush etc., because that is the policy and law. I tried to keep them together but the problem is, when you do that, vast numbers of additional people storm the Border. So with Obama seperation [sic] is fine, but with Trump it’s not. Fake 60 Minutes!"

This summer, a 2014 photo of detained children circulated widely on social media, falsely pegged by some journalists and liberal activists as a detention happening in 2018.

The rest of the claims in Trump’s tweets are inaccurate and don’t tell the whole story. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Differences in family separations by Obama and Trump

The Justice Department in April introduced "zero-tolerance" as a new policy under the Trump administration, not as one carried over from past administrations. The policy called for the prosecution of all adults who were referred by immigration authorities for violating immigration laws.

As a consequence of the policy, more than 2,300 immigrant children were separated from their parents as they arrived at the border this summer. Children were put into the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services and the parents referred for prosecution.

Past administrations also separated children from the adults they arrived with in the United States. But immigration experts said those separations were relatively rare and nowhere near the scale under the Trump administration.

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A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border enforcement, told PolitiFact that Obama’s administration did not count the number of families separated at the border.

The Obama administration began prosecuting border-crossers who had already been deported at least once, but very few of them crossed with children, so it didn’t become as visible an issue, Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told us for a previous fact-check.

"There was some child separation and some pushback by immigrant advocacy groups around that, but the numbers were quite limited," Seele said.

While Obama’s administration generally refrained from prosecuting adults who crossed the border with their children, the Trump administration chose to prosecute adults, even when they had kids with them, said Peter Margulies, an immigration law and national security law professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, in June.

"That's a choice — one fundamentally different from the choice made by both Obama and previous presidents of both parties," Margulies said.

The George W. Bush administration had a program, Operation Streamline, that referred immigrants who crossed into the country illegally for prosecution, but it made exceptions for adults traveling with children.

Trump’s tweet also claimed that family separations were done "because that is the policy and law."

There is no law requiring that all families be separated once they cross the border. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in June tweeted, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border.  Period." The "zero-tolerance" policy did not explicitly say parents and children had to be separated, but that was the result of parents being referred for prosecution.

Katie Waldman, a DHS spokeswoman, told PolitiFact that families are separated for one of three reasons: when officials cannot establish the custodial relationship, when they believe the custodian may be a threat to the child, or when the custodian is being detained for prosecution.

Trump also claimed that he "tried to keep them together." Trump in June insisted that he didn’t have the executive power to end family separations — but he later did just that after mounting pressure and criticism over the separations. We rated Trump’s claim that he couldn’t end family separations a Full Flop.

Our ruling

Tweeting about family separations at the border, Trump claimed, "we had the exact same policy as the Obama administration."

That’s not true. Families were separated at the border as a result of a new Trump policy called "zero-tolerance." There were some family separations under the Obama administration, but experts say not at the scale of the Trump administration's and that they were relatively rare.

We rate Trump’s statement False.

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Says of immigrant family separations at the border, "we had the exact same policy as the Obama administration."
in a tweet
Sunday, November 25, 2018

Our Sources

Twitter, @realdonaldtrump tweet, tweet, Nov. 25, 2018

Email interview, Department of Homeland Security press office, Nov. 27, 2018

PolitiFact, No, Donald Trump’s separation of immigrant families was not Barack Obama’s policy, June 19, 2018

PolitiFact, Immigration in 5 charts: a 2018 midterm report, Oct. 7, 2018

PolitiFact, Trump correctly tweets that Democrats mistakenly tweeted photo of child migrants being held in 2014, May 29, 2018, Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry, April 6, 2018

Berkeley Law, University of California, Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline, January 2010

PolitiFact, Donald Trump blames Democrats for own immigration policy separating families, May 29, 2018

PolitiFact, Trump changes course, stops family separation at the border, June 21, 2018

Twitter, @SecNielsen tweet, June 17, 2018

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Donald Trump falsely says family separations were Obama policy

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