In a damning 25-page report released Tuesday, government investigators at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) found that the Trump administration violated basic child protection rules while enforcing its family separation policy for migrant families arrested at the border.
“DHS was not fully prepared to implement the Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its after-effects,” the DHS Inspector General’s Office report begins. That’s an understatement.
Though for several weeks DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeatedly — and falsely — denied that a “family separation policy” existed, even as its implementation became unmistakable, the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report clearly laid out how the policy began:
On April 6, the President ordered his Cabinet to crack down on so-called “catch and release,” or the practice of allowing some migrants arrested at the border to be released from detention to await court dates. In response, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security began referring and prosecuting adults who were arrested with children at the border on criminal charges. Because children cannot be held in criminal detention, they were then labeled “unaccompanied” and held in DHS custody until they could be transferred to the custody of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which placed them in government-contracted detention centers, shelters and foster homes.
After public outcry, Trump ended the policy of separating families with an executive order on June 20, though hundreds of families remain separated to this day. The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General announced Tuesday that it would look into the DOJ’s role in implementing the so-called “zero tolerance” policy.
Here’s some of what the DHS OIG report found:
Trump Admin Throttled Legal Asylum-Seekers At Ports Of Entry
The report begins by examining the subject of a lawsuit by migrant rights groups, who allege that the government improperly turned away a number of asylum-seekers entering the country through ports of entry — a tactic that, according to an unnamed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, “likely resulted in additional illegal border crossings.”
“OIG saw evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally,” the report stated, adding: “One woman said she had been turned away three times by an officer on the bridge before deciding to take her chances on illegal entry.”
CBP Violated Limits On Child Detention
While “unaccompanied” children are normally only allowed to be held for up to 72 hours in CBP detention facilities — known for their freezing cold temperatures, mylar blankets and indoor chainlink fences — before being transferred to HHS custody, hundreds of children who were separated from their families were held for longer.
According to one CBP dataset government investigators obtained, more than 800 children were held longer than the 72-hour limit between two Border Patrol sectors. “One unaccompanied alien child remained in [CBP] custody for 12 days (over 280 hours),” the report noted.
The improper crowding of CBP facilities led to some officers having to “supervise and take care of children” instead of patrolling the border, the report found. Another Border Patrol official — U.S. Border Patrol is one part of CBP — said the family separation policy “hampered the Border Patrol’s ability to screen possible fraudulent claims of parentage,” in the report’s words.
DHS official Jim Crumpacker, responding to the report, said the report “omits many factors that might provide context” regarding the “custodial responsibility” of children held past legal limits in CBP facilities.
Agencies Failed To Communicate And Share Data
Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents to this day, in large part due to the Trump administration’s lack of planning and interagency communication when the family separation policy was first implemented.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, because the agency’s data entry system did not include information regarding which children and parents had been separated from each other, “made no additional effort to identify and reunite families prior to removal,” the report found. Some “unaccompanied” children detained at ports of entry had their information shared between agencies in a Microsoft Word document.
Despite claims from DHS and HHS officials that they’d made “a central database” to keep track of everything, the report found “no evidence that such a database exists.”
And when the DHS OIG asked the department for a list of separated children, including basic information like the children’s birthdays and current location, it took DHS “many weeks” to provide the data, the report found, and the resulting information itself “was incomplete and inconsistent.”
Separated Parents Were Kept In The Dark
The DHS OIG investigators, after speaking with parents separated from their children, corroborated what advocates have said for months: Parents were often given conflicting and incorrect information about the whereabouts of their children, and about the process for reuniting with them.
For many, all the information they were provided — if any — about possible reunification fit on a single flyer, “Next Steps for Families.” In many instances, parents were unaware that they needed a “unique code assigned to each individual” in order to reach their kids.
The report added: “Some adults appeared to be unable to read Spanish or English, while others spoke indigenous dialects.”
The report said that Border Patrol agents “do not appear to take measures to ensure that preverbal children separated from their parents can be correctly identified.” Non-verbal children were not provided “wrist bracelets or other means of identification,” nor were their fingerprints or photos taken to ensure later identification.
“Some families,” the report concluded, could have been reunited quickly after parents were sentenced to time served for their criminal violations and returned to CBP custody. However, many of these parents were transferred directly from criminal custody to ICE custody, “rather than readmitting them where they might be reunited with their children.”
According to one “senior official” involved, that happened “in order to avoid doing the additional paperwork required to readmit the adults.”
Read the DHS OIG report here.