But history shows policies like this have been implemented time and time again since the nation began.
In fact, the US has a long history of separating children from their parents. Government policies forced apart the families of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and Mexican immigrants, and detained Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Enslaved parents lived with the constant fear of being separated from their children.
Slave owners could split up families for any number of reasons -- including selling slaves to pay off debts, dividing families to create equal inheritance or as punishment.
Heather Williams, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the emotional reports of parents and children separated at the US-Mexico border echo the pain and anguish enslaved parents went through.
Williams recalled accounts of mothers begging slave traders to let them keep their children. She described an instance in which an enslaved child who had been separated from his parents would not stop crying, much like the eight-minute audio of the sobbing immigrant children
"When I hear the voices of those children, it absolutely resonates because that's how I imagine it was with the people that I study," Williams said.
After the Civil War ended, formerly enslaved people were left to find family members they might not have seen in years. Thousands of ads were placed in black newspapers in an effort to reunite families, but finding those relatives sometimes proved to be an impossible task.
"During slavery, there was a belief among slave owners that these families could be ripped apart and there was no need to think about how they ever might be brought back together," said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Likening the separation of black families to migrant families, Fernandez said: "What we're seeing here is a federal government which had no strategy to ever bring these families back together."
After Trump signed an executive order
on Wednesday to stop migrant parents from being separated from their children, it took days before the administration had a plan to reunite families. The plan, released Saturday, indicates that it could be a long time before those children make it back to their parents
Native American boarding schools
In the 19th century, the US government began a campaign to assimilate Native American children into white American society by separating them from their families and stripping them of their language and culture.
In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act,
which provided religious organizations the resources to run schools for Native American children "for introducing among them the habits and arts of civilization."
Sixty years later, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt founded the first Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Native American children were taken from their parents and communities and forced to attend similar institutions that aimed to "kill the Indian, and save the man," as Pratt famously said.