It is now abundantly clear that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards parents with children seeking asylum in the US aimed to separate the children from their parents, keep the children in the US and deport the parents.

Early on, White House chief of staff John Kelly said that the children would be placed in “foster care or whatever”.

Under Federal Court order, the administration reversed course and said it would reunite the children with their parents. But it soon became clear that no records had been kept of which children belonged to which parents.

Before Trump ordered the reunifications, many parents were already deported while their children remained in the US. The government admits that 463 parents fell into this category. (But the government figures are suspect, because it tries to cover up the reality.)

Many deported parents had fled from extreme violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Where they are in those countries is a mystery, because they must hide to avoid the violence they fled from. Obviously, it is very difficult to reunite these families.

Trivialising this situation with a sick joke, Trump proposed that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) find the parents. The ACLU is legally challenging the whole evil and cruel “zero tolerance” policy.

Immigration lawyers report that new asylum seekers are being summarily denied asylum at the border. In June, attorney general Jeff Sessions announced that fleeing from gang and domestic violence – which most cite as their reason for seeking asylum – would no longer be a valid reason for seeking asylum.

The ACLU has now filed a suit in Federal Court, arguing that the policy violates due process “in numerous aspects”.

The ACLU filed an earlier suit arguing that many parents were coerced or misled into signing “voluntary” deportation forms. The ACLU charges that many could not read the forms and were confused about what they were agreeing to.

The forms contained three choices. One was, “Do you agree to be deported and reunited with your child outside?” Those who checked that box were then deported and their children left behind.

Another was, “Do you agree to be deported but reunited with your child before?” Those who checked that box were reunited with their children, if they could be matched up (hundreds of children have yet to be matched with their parents). These families are reunited – in jail.

The third alternative was, “Do you want to speak with your lawyer?” One immigration lawyer reported that a client who checked that box was accosted by an officer who said to her, “Don’t you want to be with your child? Don’t you want to be reunited with your child?” 

According to administration figures, 105 of the approximately 3,000 children separated from their parents are under the age of five. Some of these were still breast feeding. The government claims to have reunited 57. The remaining children won’t be reunited with their parents, because the government claims the parents are criminals or otherwise unfit. It gives no information backing up its determination. The 46 will now presumably be placed in Kelly’s “foster homes or whatever”.

Hundreds of parents with children over five years old have been similarly ruled unfit to be reunited with their children.

More information has been uncovered by investigative reporters, lawyers for the parents and their children and even observant bystanders.

One of the latter was Lianna Dunlap in Phoenix, Arizona. She noticed white vans loaded with children pulling up to a vacant office building behind her house in June. The next day, she videotaped more children being led into the building. She didn’t see children leave or go outside for three weeks, when she and her neighbours saw up to 80 children being led out. 

The windows were blacked out, so sunlight never entered the building. She contacted local media, which is how immigration reporters discovered it.

They discovered that the site had been leased in March for five years by a private contractor, MVM, a company contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). MVM admitted that the building had no kitchen and few toilets. It turns out that ICE has been using private contractors to use whatever buildings they operate as detention centres.

Immigrant advocates report that some children have been released from ICE contractor sites with scabies and lice. A Chicago contractor, Heartland Alliance, is being investigated for abuse and neglect of immigrant children. 

The Washington Post reported that, at one Heartland Alliance site, a boy was repeatedly injected with a drug that made him drowsy; another boy was denied medication for weeks after injuring his arm. It also reported that children were surveilled with hidden cameras and prevented from hugging their brothers and sisters.

An article from the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that $1.5 billion has been paid by the federal government in the last four years to companies operating immigrant youth detention centres that faced accusations of serious lapses in care. 

Children held at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas were restrained and injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs against their will, making them dizzy, listless, obese, even incapacitated.

Human rights group Dream Defenders held a national day of action at offices of the GEO Group across the country in early August. The GEO Group is ICE’s biggest contractor. In retaliation, GEO Group has threatened to sue Dream Defenders. 

Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy has had the effect that Trump aimed for: frightening would be asylum seekers from even trying.

But his sights are also set on reducing legal immigration, as his blocking of asylum seekers and his ban on Muslim immigrants indicates.

In a recent tweet, Trump wrote, “I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch and Release etc. and finally go to a system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our country!”

The “Lottery” refers to a policy originally set up to give applicants from certain countries Green Cards that allow them to come and work in the US, to increase diversity. Only a few applicants are chosen by lottery. “Catch and release” refers to the previous practice of allowing people to be released into the population while waiting immigration courts to adjudicate their claims.

One aspect of his idea of “merit” was expressed a few months ago, when Trump said he didn’t want people from “shithole countries” to immigrate, but people from countries such as Norway were fine. That is, white people.