The Zero-Tolerance Policy was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on April 6, 2018 as part of the Trump Administration's attempt to crack down on illegal immigration. The Policy itself directs all US Attorney's Offices along the Southwest Border to "adopt a policy to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals of section 1325(a)violations, to the extent possible." Basically, because the Justice Department can't prosecute children along with their parents, the Zero-Tolerance Policy incentivizes the separation of children from their families so that their parents can be prosecuted fully and potentially deported. Since April, over two thousand immigrant children have been separated from their parents.
Initially conceived by senior immigration enforcement officials in 2014, the Zero-Tolerance Policy was shelved because it was found by the Obama Administration to be unduly harsh. When Trump took office, the Policy was revisited by Trump, Sessions, Stephen Miller and John Kelly.
Though Jeff Sessions said in May that "If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated form you, probably, as required by law," there is no legal mandate that requires the separation of children from their families. In fact, prior to Sessions's April announcement, it was uncommon for children to be separated from their parents when crossing the border. Families were usually kept together while their cases entered civil court. Sessions, by demanding the full force of prosecution for all immigrants seeking refuge or asylum, has attempted to legalize the separation of families.
Under the Obama Administration, the prosecution of illegal immigrants was directed at those suspected of violent crimes or gang activity. Under the current Policy, any and all illegal immigrants may be prosecuted fully. The process goes like this: a family is apprehended at the border and taken into custody of the Department of Homeland Security. The adults are then referred to the Justice Department for prosecution while their children are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. On average, each child spends 51 days at an ORR shelter before being placed with a sponsor in the U.S., a sponsor who could be a complete stranger. There is little communication between the ORR and the Justice Department, meaning that separated families often have no idea of their children's whereabouts. The parents of a child could be deported while the child remains in holding at an ORR shelter, unaware of their fate.
At Customs and Border Protection facilities, children are kept in mesh cages. They are legally only allowed to be kept at these sites for three days before they must be transferred to an ORR camp. Siblings have been prevented from hugging one another while employees have been prevented from consoling children who are crying out for their parents. These conditions are inhumane at best and are a direct result of the Zero-Tolerance Policy and actions taken by the Trump Administration.
Reacting to mounting pressure from both parties to end this inconceivable treatement, Trump announced minutes ago from the Oval Office that he would be signing an executive order to keep immigrant families together. However, he also said that the Zero-Tolerance Policy would continue. What the order entails and how it will play out remain to be seen.