After the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" immigration strategy evoked national condemnation for separating some 2,600 children from their parents, a federal government report released yesterday (October 2) draws a damming portrait of disarray among agencies tasked with implementing the policy.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was not prepared to implement the policy, which directed the government to criminally prosecute immigrant parents—and separate them from their children—once they crossed the United States-Mexico border. Nor was the agency ready to deal with the program’s fallout, according to the report, issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), the DHS watchdog agency.
Not only did Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hold immigrant children for extended periods of time in cells intended for short-term detention, but DHS struggled to identify, track and reunite separated families, according to the report.
Adding to the chaos was inconsistent information provided to immigrant adults once they arrived in the U.S., resulting in many parents not realizing they would be separated from their chidren, and not understanding they would not be able to communicate with them.
"CBP officials reported that, prior to separation, adult aliens accompanied by children were given an HHS flyer providing information about a national call center and/or a ‘Next Steps for Families’ flyer produced jointly by DHS and HHS," the report says, referring to a document that provides information on how to locate and speak with one’s child after separation. "However, at the Port Isabel Detention Center, one of the four detainees interviewed by the OIG team reported that she had never seen the ‘Next Steps’ flyer."
In a statement to The Washington Post, CBP defended its treatment of separated children. “The safety and well-being of unaccompanied alien children . . . is our highest responsibility, and we work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement to ensure the timely and secure transfer of all unaccompanied minors in our custody as soon as placement is available from HHS,” CBP said.
OIG spoke to 12 immigrants during field visits to several detention centers in Texas. The agency found that only six of them were able to speak to their children while in detention. Of the six who were not able to speak to their children, none said they received assitance from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
These limitations, the report adds, were only inflamed by the lack of integration among the agency’s information technology systems. In June, OIG notes, DHS announced that the agency and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had a central database with contact information for separated parents and children. But OIG found little integration between these agencies and ICE.
"OIG found no evidence that such a database exists," the report says. "The OIG team asked several ICE employees, including those involved with DHS’ reunification efforts at ICE headquarters, if they knew of such a database, and they did not. Two officials suggested that the ‘central database’ referenced in DHS’ announcement is actually a manually-compiled spreadsheet maintained by HHS, CBP and ICE personnel."
After bipartisan outcry and national protests, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 20 that halted the family separation policy. A week later, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunify separated children with their parents; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the policy in court. Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents.
"Thousands of kids are living with trauma because of the Trump administration’s family separation fiasco. Some parents may never see their kids again," the ACLU tweeted on Tuesday. "This report shows not just the cruelty of the Trump administration’s actions, but also its ineptitude."