Although the forced separation of children from parents in the custody of U.S. immigration officials is not yet a policy, it's already a practice along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to eight human rights groups that filed a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security.
Officials with the Trump administration have said they're considering a policy of separating families in detention to discourage immigrants and asylum seekers from coming to the U.S., according to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Under the Obama administration, families who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum were often released on parole with a notice to appear in immigration court.
KPBS has been following the case of a 1-year-old boy from El Salvador who was separated from his father, Jose Demar Fuentes, last November. His case is cited in the complaint, which describes "an alarming increase in family units being forcibly divided," and said the practice "is so fundamentally unconscionable it defies countless international and domestic laws on child welfare, human rights and refugees."
The American Immigration Council, the Women's Refugee Commission, Al Otro Lado and other organizations filed the complaint in December with the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Acting Inspector General, which provide oversight for the agency.
In an emailed statement, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed it had received the complaint.
“As it is an open investigation, we are not able to provide any additional information," the statement said.
Katie Shepherd, the national advocacy counsel for the American Immigration Council, said she has seen a dramatic uptick in family separation over the past six months.
"It undermines our legacy of providing safe haven for those who are fleeing harm," Shepherd said.
She said the complaint was filed with the hope of initiating an internal investigation at the Department of Homeland Security regarding this practice. She said she plans to supplement the complaint in the coming months with additional cases of family separation.
"The focus of the complaint was children being separated from their parents," she said. "(But) family separation has numerous variations and manifestations. It can be spouses separated from one another, it can be adult children from parents, cousins, grandmothers and grandfathers, anything you can imagine."
Shepherd said the strategy won't deter asylum seekers from coming to the U.S., but it will discourage them from presenting themselves at ports of entry. She said they will instead use dangerous desert crossing routes, where hundreds of people die trying to reach the U.S. each year.
Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney with Al Otro Lado, said the organizations had documented nearly 200 cases of family separation at the time of filing the complaint.
She called the practice "egregious" and said it sometimes results in the permanent separation of family members, such as when the child is granted the ability to stay in the U.S. while the parent is deported.
"It's a total deprivation of parental rights," Pinheiro said.