Fact check: Pence blames Obama for family separation policy at the border

During a CNN town hall shortly after he officially announced his presidential candidacy, former Vice President Mike Pence addressed a controversial immigration policy: the separation of families arriving at the southwest border.
Posted 2023-06-13T15:08:15+00:00 - Updated 2023-06-13T21:02:03+00:00

During a CNN town hall shortly after he officially announced his presidential candidacy, former Vice President Mike Pence addressed a controversial immigration policy: the separation of families arriving at the southwest border.

During the June 7 town hall, moderator Dana Bash raised the issue when she asked Pence what he thought of something former President Donald Trump said a few weeks earlier. Trump, participating in another CNN town hall, said that even though he had ended the family separation policy while he was president, he would consider bringing it back if reelected in 2024, because it deterred illegal immigration.

"Would you bring it back?" Bash asked Pence, who is facing off against Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries.

Pence said "no," adding, "Look, the family separation policy actually began under the Obama administration. And then we continued it until President Trump rightly reversed course."

Trump has repeatedly said this, too, and we’ve rated those claims False. Pence’s statement is equally inaccurate.

Separations under past administrations, including Obama’s, were rare, and became systematic only under Trump.

Generally, a child and an adult who arrive together at the border can be separated when border 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.

Immigration experts have told PolitiFact that family separations did not happen at nearly the scale that they did under the Trump administration.

George W. Bush’s Operation Streamline referred for prosecution immigrants who crossed into the country illegally, but made exceptions for adults who were traveling with children. The Obama administration initially kept families together in detention, but after losing a legal challenge, released families out of detention into the U.S. after holding them for a limited time.

In March 2017, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told CNN he was considering separating children from parents to deter illegal immigration.

The family separations under Trump’s watch began because of a new policy introduced in April 2018 by Trump’s then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Sessions said an "escalated effort" was needed to address a crisis at the southwest border and directed the implementation of the "zero-tolerance" policy to prosecute all adults illegally entering the United States.

However, amid growing backlash and criticism of family separations, Trump issued an executive order to keep families together, even if a parent faced prosecution. Families would be detained together "where appropriate and consistent with law" and based on available resources, said his June 2018 order.

Biden formally revoked the family separation policy shortly after taking office, fulfilling a campaign promise.

In 2021, the Biden administration released a tally of at least 3,900 children that were separated during Trump’s administration. Other estimates from the American Civil Liberties Union suggest the number of separations is more than 5,000.

"Obama generally refrained from prosecution in cases involving adults who crossed the border with their kids," Peter Margulies, an immigration law and national security law professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, told PolitiFact in 2018.

In contrast, the Trump administration prosecuted adult border-crossers, even when they had kids, he said. "That's a choice — one fundamentally different from the choice made by both Obama and previous presidents of both parties," Margulies said.

Denise Gilman, a law professor who directs the University of Texas School of Law’s immigration clinic, told PolitiFact in 2018 that immigration attorneys "occasionally" saw separated families under the Obama administration.

"However, these families were usually reunited quite quickly once identified," she said, "even if that meant release of a parent from adult detention."

Pence’s campaign did not provide PolitiFact with information supporting his claim.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: False

Pence said, "The family separation policy actually began under the Obama administration."

The Obama administration did not have a policy to separate families arriving illegally at the border. Family separations rarely happened under the Obama administration, which sought to keep families together in detention. Based on a court decision, it released families together out of detention.

Separations under Trump occurred systematically as a result of his administration’s policy to prosecute all adults crossing the border illegally. After mounting public pressure and criticism, Trump signed an executive order to stop separating families.

We rate the statement False.