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U.S. Politics More than 900 migrant children separated from families at the U.S. border in the past year, ACLU reports

A staff member cleans a dining hall at a U.S. government facility for holding migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Tex., on July 9, 2019.

Eric Gay/The Associated Press

More than 900 children have been separated from their families at the border since a judge ordered that the practice be sharply curtailed, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.

One parent was separated for property damage valued at $5, the ACLU said. Six parents were separated for convictions of marijuana possession. Eight were split up for fraud and forgery offences.

A 2-year-old Guatemalan girl was separated from her father after authorities examined her for a fever and diaper rash and found she was malnourished and underdeveloped, the ACLU said. The father, who came from an “extraordinarily impoverished community” rife with malnutrition, was accused of neglect.

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About 20 per cent of the 911 children separated from June 28, 2018, to June 29 of this year were under 5 years old, including babies, the ACLU said. They include 678 whose parents faced allegations of criminal conduct. Other reasons include alleged gang affiliation, unfitness or child safety concerns, “unverified familial relationship” or parent illness.

In June 2018, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered that the practice of splitting up families at the border be halted except in limited circumstances, like child-safety concerns. He told the administration to reunite the more than 2,700 children who were in government custody at the time, which has largely been accomplished.

The ACLU, which based its findings on reports that the administration provided, asked that the judge order the government to clarify its criteria for splitting families.

“It is shocking that the Trump administration continues to take babies from their parents,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said. “The administration must not be allowed to circumvent the court order over infractions like minor traffic violations.”

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 218-page court filing details separations that are sure to raise scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The ACLU said a 4-year-old boy was split from his family because his father’s speech impediment prevented him from answering questions, despite evidence that he was the parent.

A 2-year-old girl was split from her father after Customs and Border Protection questioned a birth certificate’s authenticity. The father, who speaks an indigenous language and didn’t have an interpreter, was reunited after a DNA test confirmed he was a parent.

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The government also took children from women whom they believed had gang ties but who in fact had been gang targets, the ACLU said.

One woman from El Salvador said a gang member forced her to be his girlfriend until he was arrested in late 2018. She came to the U.S. in February and was separated from her 3-year-old son for three months while an attorney tracked down Salvadoran documents showing she had been a victim, not a criminal.

Another Salvadoran woman was separated from her 2-year-old daughter on the toddler’s birthday because of suspected gang ties. But the woman’s attorney says her client had been raped repeatedly by a gangster who forced her to deliver marijuana inside a prison. The woman refused and turned the pot into authorities, but she was arrested anyway.

In other cases, families were separated for minor crimes that, if committed by people living in the U.S., would never result in a child being taken away.

Attorneys say a 17-year-old girl spent four months in custody after being separated from her father. The father had served a six-day jail sentence for a charge of destruction of property valued at $5.

A 7-year-old girl has been in custody since June after being separated from her father because he had a conviction of driving without a license and had previously entered the country without authorization.

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The ACLU said 14 parents were separated based on immigration convictions combined with driving under the influence or unspecified traffic offences.

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