Law and Human Rights

Orphaned with Parents: A Look Into the Trump Administration’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy


Monsura A. Sirajee & Farrah Qazi – USA

For weeks, Elizabeth’s [1] dad had tried to cajole his eight-year-old daughter to attend school, something she used to love doing before, but Elizabeth would cry uncontrollably at the suggestion of leaving her dad’s side. This was not your typical case of back-to-school nerves. If her father left her sight, Elizabeth feared she would never see her father again. Her dad struggled to find the words to comfort her, but he couldn’t be entirely sure he would see her again either. 

Elizabeth is just one of more than 5400 children who were forcibly separated from their parents or guardians after they crossed the United States border under the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy. For three agonizing months, Elizabeth spent every waking moment wondering when she would see her father again. While she was eventually reunited with her father, that extreme anxiety will not be undone overnight, if ever.      

Trauma is the Purpose of the Policy

We are attorneys who represent families separated at the United States border under the Trump Administration’s infamous zero tolerance policy, and the ongoing trauma Elizabeth lives with is not unique. Collectively, we have represented over 50 families and the extraordinary trauma inflicted on parents and children alike was no incidental byproduct of the policy—it was the very point.  

Curbing asylum has been a central focus of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. In a December 16, 2017 memorandum exchanged between senior government officials aimed at curbing immigration, the officials proposed a policy of increased prosecution of ‘Family Unit Parents.’ Under the proposal, parents would be prosecuted for illegal entry and the minors present with them would be placed in custody. The memorandum asserted that ‘the increase in prosecutions would be reported by the media and it would have substantial deterrent effect.’ President Trump himself had indicated that deterrence was the motivation behind his zero-tolerance policy. When speaking with reporters, he said, ‘If they feel there will be separation, they don’t come.’  

Prior to the Trump administration, families were generally paroled into the country to await their immigration cases or detained together. On May 7, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had implemented a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, mandating the prosecution of all persons who cross the United States border without permission, including those lawfully seeking asylum. Undocumented asylum seekers were imprisoned, and any accompanying children under the age of 18 were shipped miles away from their parents, scattered among several dozen shelters across the country. Hundreds of infants and toddlers under the age of 5 were among those who were separated.

To make matters worse, the government failed to take even the most basic steps to record which children belonged to which parent, highlighting the government’s indifference to the dire consequences of the policy on the separated families. As emphasized by one federal judge overseeing subsequent lawsuits, separated children were treated less carefully than property. She noted:  

‘The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings. Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked, and produced upon a detainee’s release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process.’


Policy Ends, But Reunification is Chaotic

Only after the family separation policy garnered widespread condemnation did President Trump sign an executive order on June 20, 2018 purporting to end it. The executive order, however, did not explain whether or how the federal government would reunify children who had been previously separated from their parents. In fact, the government admitted that it had no reunification procedure in place.

It was not until a federal judge ordered the government on June 26, 2018 to reunify families that the government began taking steps to do so. What followed was chaos. Because no single database with reliable information regarding parents separated from their children existed, the agencies were left to resort to a variety of inefficient and ineffective methods to reunify families. These methods included officers hand-sifting through agency data looking for any indication that a child in custody had been separated from his or her parent. The methods for determining which family units required reunification changed frequently, sometimes more than once a day, with staff at one shelter reporting that ‘there were times when [they] would be following one process in the morning but a different one in the afternoon.’

Hundreds of Parents Have Not Been Found

As of the writing of this article, the parents of at least 666 children cannot be found and many of the parents have been deported back to Central America, creating a situation where children have been forcibly orphaned with living parents

For the children who are lucky enough to be released to their family in the United States, the process of release is mired in bureaucracy and red tape. A family member who wishes to gain custody of the child must have legal status, which itself is a significant hurdle for most people. Without legal status, they run the risk of the government detaining them as soon as they present themselves on behalf of the child. Furthermore, the sponsoring family member must be able to provide tax documents, financial statements, a copy of a lease, several identifying documents, and a background check. If they earn below the required income, they cannot sponsor the child either. If by some chance, they complete all of these requirements, they must wait several months until the paperwork is processed. In the meantime, the child continues to languish in a detention center. In the case of one of our clients, a two-year-old named Nora, it took six months and a lawsuit filed on her behalf to finally force the government to release her into her uncle’s care. In total, Nora spent ten months in a detention center designed for unaccompanied children, even though she had both parents and an extended family willing to take custody of her.

Nora: A Case Study

If the family separation policy sounds cruel in the abstract, the details are even more horrifying with families forced to endure gruesome detention conditions and instances of children being snatched from parents without any notice.

Take Nora’s case for instance. At two years old, Nora was still not the youngest detainee held in McAllen, Texas. Nora came to the U.S. after fleeing Honduras with her father, Ramon. The pair had left Honduras after gang members looted their house and threatened to kidnap and kill Nora because Ramon had refused to join the local gang. Their trip lasted more than a month and included hitched rides, swimming a river, and walking thousands of miles until they reached the U.S. border. Once there, Ramon followed the legal way to enter another country by presenting himself to border officials and asking for asylum. After their long, difficult, and often harrowing journey from Honduras, Ramon and Nora faced yet another challenge at the hands of U.S. border agents. They were immediately sent to ‘la hielera’ for one week, a section of the detention center that is deliberately set to freezing temperatures for the immigrants who are kept inside. Ramon and Nora were given aluminum foil in lieu of blankets and slept on the hard concrete floor with little to eat or drink.

As a result, Nora developed an incessant cough which she had when she and her father appeared in court for their deportation proceeding. Once there, the guards told Ramon that Nora had to wait outside while he talked to the judge. Ramon balked at this and asked to stay with his daughter. The guards assured him she would be waiting for him when he came out. Ramon hugged Nora, went inside, tried to tell the judge about his issues with the gang but was promptly told that this hearing would not listen to those claims and that he was being sent to another detention center. When he exited the courtroom, Nora was gone. The guards told him she had been transferred to another facility designed for unaccompanied children who arrive in the U.S. without parents. This made little sense to Ramon but his attempts at answers were rebuffed and he was transported to a facility in Arizona, without being able to see or speak to his daughter again.

For three months, Ramon tried to find out where his daughter was but no one would give him any answers, until he hired a lawyer. Three weeks later, after countless phone calls, letters, and demands for information, Nora’s location was found but she was not reunited with her family immediately.

While the details of Nora’s case are shocking, sadly, she can count herself among the lucky ones. There are more than 600 children whose parents cannot be found. This is in addition to the 5,400 children who have been separated from their parents. Add this number to the countless hundreds who have been lost in the system or the bus full of children who were being transported from one detention center to another and were never found, and you realize the extent of this incredible crisis.


Fear Pervades the System

Eight-year-old Elizabeth’s fear that her father will not be home when she returns home from school is well founded. As if the trauma of separation was not enough, another aspect of the zero-tolerance policy is the increased raids and deportations that have occurred under the Trump administration. Children go off to school and come back to empty homes because their parents have been deported. This occurred with one of our clients, a 19-year-old girl who was left to fend for herself and her 7-year-old sister when their home was raided, and their parents were unceremoniously deported to Mexico. The young 19-year-old, a child herself, was suddenly left with the responsibility of paying bills and caring for her sister. She was forced to leave college in order to work two full-time jobs. Despite her best efforts, she had been eating canned soup for weeks and had $20 in her account at the time she retained Qazi Law. Her sister had dropped out of school and was suffering from anxiety, depression, and sleep terrors. After countless appeals, court dates, and lawsuits, their mother has been reunited with them but their father is still trapped in Mexico. Their case is ongoing and serves as an important reminder of the grave effects of these policies on the youngest members of our society.

With the start of the COVID pandemic, this administration found another excuse to rapidly deport minors at the border. Citing health concerns, the government began to quickly catch and deport any minor who entered the United States. Within 48-72 hours, those same minors were unceremoniously returned to Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Young children are sent back to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico even if they originally came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, or some other country. No attempt has been made by the government to ensure the safety of these minors once they are deported. As a result, Ciudad Juarez has become a hotspot for traffickers and gang members as they eagerly await newly deported children, who are often completely alone and disoriented enough to trust anyone.

This became painfully obvious in two cases that we advised on, which resulted in the kidnapping of children separated under the zero-tolerance policy. The first one involved a 6-year-old girl who entered the U.S. with her mother, was separated from her under the zero-tolerance policy, and then deported within three days. By the time her mother realized what was happening and had contacted a lawyer, the little girl had landed in Ciudad Juarez, where she was promptly kidnapped. Eyewitnesses reported that the girl went away with some men and has not been seen since. In the second instance, a 16-year-old girl came with her father from Guatemala. Again, she was separated from her father and deported. In this case, the kidnappers held her for a ransom of $20,000 and sent pictures to her mother, who had been frantically waiting for her daughter. Since the mother is a lawful permanent resident, she had the ability to contact lawyers and local state representatives without fearing for her own safety from the risk of deportation. However, to date, the daughter has still not been released by her captors.


As Ahmadi Lawyers, We Condemn the Zero-Tolerance Policy and Grieve With the Parents

As lawyers, our instinct is to immediately dig into the facts and the law that make up our clients’ cases, but with our child separation cases, another thought haunts and motivates our work: This could have been me. 

As Ahmadi Muslims, we can sympathize with the harrowing journeys our clients have made.  Many of our own families have come to the United States seeking safety and security from state-sponsored and sanctioned persecution in countries like Pakistan. We can imagine the fear and hope of coming to a foreign country and not speaking the language, but how would we react if, after such a long and fearful journey, our babies were suddenly taken from our arms. Imagine the terror our child would feel and the hopeless anguish we would feel as mothers. Imagine the impossible frustration of demanding day after day to know where our child is, without getting a clear answer. It is hardly fathomable, and yet, this is the reality for so many of our clients. 

Not Forgotten by His Holiness, the Caliph (aba)

When the first photos of children being kept in cages in detention centers were released, there was an audible uproar. However, as months have progressed into years, we feared that people have forgotten about the travesty committed against these children. But not the Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba). 

During a recent Friday sermon, His Holiness (aba) once again drew light to the plight of the families who have been forever marred by the Trump administration’s child-separation policy. His Holiness (aba) presented a narration in which a companion of the Holy Prophet (sa) reunited a prisoner of war with her child after learning that they had been separated. He did this because he had heard the Holy Prophet (sa) say, ‘Whoever separates between a mother and her child, Allah will separate him from his loved ones on the Day of Judgement.’ [2] In light of this narration, His Holiness (aba) commented that this is the level to which Islam cares for people and noted the sharp contrast of Islam’s teaching against the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. His Holiness (aba) stated,

‘Recently, there were reports from the United States that migrants who had arrived there were separated from one another and children were separated from their mothers. In some cases, the children could not even recognize their mothers after some time. In any case Islam’s teachings are so detailed, that it states children should not be separated from their mothers and they should not be a cause grief in this way.’ [3]

His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad

His Holiness’ (aba) sermon has added another dimension to our work. The government’s cruel policy of separating children from their parents, and its failure to track the children once they were separated, violated more than just our client’s constitutional and international human rights.  The government instituted and implemented this policy to intentionally inflict emotional distress on the parents and children who were separated. It succeeded, with devastating consequences for parents and children, like Elizabeth and her father. 

How you can help

While more than two years have passed since the Trump administration purportedly ended the zero-tolerance policy, the consequences of this cruel policy remain. If you are compelled to help, there are many ways to get involved. You can aid lawyers as we continue to represent these clients pro bono. You can donate to nonprofits at the forefront of this work, including Kids in Need of Defense, the Immigrant Families Together Foundation, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. U.S. based readers can contact state representatives and demand the release of minors from detention centers across the country. Above all, you can study, learn about this human rights violation, spread awareness about this tragic human rights violation, and pray for its victims.

About the Authors: Monsura A. Sirajee is a former federal prosecutor and currently an associate at an international law firm based out of Los Angeles, CA. She has represented families separated under the zero-tolerance policy. Farrah Qazi is a Human Rights and Immigration Attorney and CEO of her own practice, Qazi Law in Chicago, IL. She represents detained clients all over the country and specializes in the release of minors in detention centers. Both are also members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Lawyers Association (AMLA) USA.


  1. The names of our clients have been changed to preserve their privacy.
  2. Jami’at-Tirmidhi Kitabus Sair, Hadith #1566.
  3. Friday Sermon delivered on November 20, 2020.