The United States Department of Health and Human Serivces‘ (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a watchdog report on Thursday (January 17) indicating that thousands more children were separated from their parents at the border than what was previously understood, The New York Times reports. More troubling: authorities are reportedly not sure what happened to many of the children.
The OIG originally put the number of family separations executed under Trump administration’s "zero tolerance policy" at just under 3,000 last spring, but the new report says that "thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court." OIG can’t confirm the total number of children separated from their parents because, per The Times, there was a "lack of a coordinated formal tracking system between the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the arm of Health and Human Services that takes in the children, and the Department of Homeland Security [DHS], which separated them from their parents."
Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights, released a statement on the findings:
It is shocking that the Trump administration enacted this policy with no attempt to develop the infrastructure and processes that could track and eventually reunite these children. We are not talking about commodities. These are kids, and we owe these families—and the American public—the full and accurate count of the number of separated children and their whereabouts today. Even amidst the government shutdown, Congress must make getting concrete answers an absolute and urgent priority.
Lee Gelernt, who challenged the zero tolerance policy in court via the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told The Times: "This report confirms what we suspected: This cruel family separation practice was way bigger than the administration let on." Gelernt continued, "We will be back in court and ask the judge to order the government to explain these numbers."
NPR reports that DHS says family separations increased during the summer of 2017 because of “higher numbers of undocumented immigrant families arriving at the U.S. border asking for entry.”
DHS spokesperson Katie Waldman told NPR, "The [OIG] report vindicates what DHS has long been saying: for more than a decade it was and continues to be standard for apprehended minors to be separated when the adult is not the parent or legal guardian." She continued, "For the HHS OIG to claim it was not known that DHS is actively enforcing this policy in the same manner for more than a decade…casts doubt on the HHS OIG’s credibility on this topic."
The Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy included forcibly removing children from parents who crossed the border in a manner the government deemed "illegal." Those children were then sent to migrant children shelters, foster homes and detention facilities.
As Colorlines previously reported, on June 26, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration must stop its family separation policy at the border and ordered the more than 2,300 children already separated to be reunited with their parents. Trump halted the practice that same month, but evidence surfaced in November showing the administration had returned to the widely criticized practice.
According to the new report, officials still have, "significant challenges in identifying separated children…it is not yet clear whether recent changes to [the government’s] systems and processes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data about separated children."