Did U.S. President Barack Obama Have a Separation Policy at the Border?

In late June 2019, United States President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that his administration did not have a family separation policy at the border — going further to attribute the controversial actions to his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump outright stated this lie multiple times in a series of interviews between June 21 and June 23, 2019:

On “Meet the Press” [on June 23 2019], Donald Trump insisted to NBC News’ Chuck Todd, “I inherited separation from President Obama.” The president told the same lie to Time magazine a day earlier.

And then the Republican repeated the lie to Jose Diaz-Balart during a Telemundo interview that aired on [June 21 2019]:

TRUMP, When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy. I didn’t have it. He had it. I brought the families together. I’m the one that brought ‘em together. Now, I said something when I did that. I’m the one that put people together… They separated. I put ‘em together.

DIAZ-BALART: You did not.

Claims that the Trump administration had no family separation policy began cropping up in June 2018, right around when news of family separations at the border were first widely reported. When subsequent claims appeared in June 2019, immigration experts immediately contested them:

The idea that this is simply a continuation of an Obama-era practice is “preposterous,” said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. “There were occasionally instances where you would find a separated family — maybe like one every six months to a year — and that was usually because there had been some actual individualized concern that there was a trafficking situation or that the parent wasn’t actually the parent.”

Once custody concerns were resolved, “there was pretty immediately reunification,” Gilman told NBC News. “There were not 2,000 kids in two months — it’s not the same universe,” she added.


Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary under Obama, said he did not separate children and parents despite the enormous surges of unaccompanied minors and families that came across the border in 2014 fleeing Central American violence.

“In three years on my watch, we probably deported or returned or repatriated about a million people to enforce border security. One of the things I could not do is separate a child from his or her mother, or literally pull a mother from his or her arms,” Johnson said on MSNBC [in June 2014]. “I just couldn’t do it.”

In June 2018, Johnson sat down with NPR to discuss the matter of separating children from their parents at the border — at the time a massive news story globally. Johnson clarified that in outlying scenarios, some separation likely occurred, but that it was not a primary initiative:

[INTERVIEWER]: So it’s your position that children were not – certainly, not as a matter of policy, but in practice they were not separated from their parents under your watch?

JOHNSON: I can’t say that it never happened. There may have been some exigent situation, some emergency. There may have been some doubt about whether the adult accompanying the child was in fact the parent of the child. I can’t say it never happened but not as a matter of policy or practice. It’s not something that I could ask our Border Patrol or our immigration enforcement personnel to do.

The interviewer segued into rationale for the policy and its use as a deterrent by the Trump administration. That aspect of the controversy originated with an April 6 2018 memo authored by former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In that memo [PDF], Sessions stated outright that the family separation policy was unprecedented:

On April 11, 2017, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors entitled “Renewed Commitment to Criminal Immigration Enforcement,” in which I directed the prioritization of the prosecution of certain criminal immigration offenses. I further directed each United States Attorney’s Office along the Southwest Border to work with the Department of Homeland Security to develop guidelines for prosecuting offenses under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a).


Accordingly, I direct each United States Attorney’s Office along the Southwest Border to the extent practicable, and in consultation with DHS- to adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy for all offenses referred for prosecution under section 1325(a). This zero-tolerance policy shall supersede any existing policies.

Although Sessions did not describe family separations in the memo, that policy was widely considered the one from which family separations resulted. On May 7 2018, CNN reported that Sessions’ memo “could separate families at the border.” Families seeking asylum were not differentiated from any others:

The current DHS plan makes no special arrangements for those who claim asylum when apprehended. While they will be allowed to pursue their claims and could eventually be found to have a legitimate right to live in the US, they could still already have a conviction for illegal entry.

CNN was reporting on remarks made by Sessions in San Diego, California on May 7 2018. In those remarks (published to Justice.gov), Sessions stated outright that the policy was designed to separate children from their parents:

That’s why the Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases.

I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.

If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you.

If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.

It does not require a close read to understand two things confirmed by Sessions between the memo and his May 2019 remarks in San Diego:

  • 100 percent of “illegal border crossings” were to be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution
  • Any children accompanying parents at the border would be separated from their families

June 2018 reporting on the discovery of the “zero tolerance” policy and its effect separating families noted that no policy inside the United States (under Obama’s or any other administration) or outside of it included a provision for separating families, which is classified by the United Nations as an act of genocide.

Sessions’ memo was the catalyst for the actions widely understood to be the “family separation policy,” a border enforcement initiative that led to thousands of families being separated at border crossings. Sessions repeatedly defended the policy, claiming that families wishing not to be separated ought not to cross the border. No credible information suggests that President Barack Obama’s administration undertook any of the same actions, and had the policy existed, Sessions would not have needed to repeatedly announce its implementation in April, May, and June of 2018.