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U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order on immigration policy with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence at his sides in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2018. Leah Millis/Reuters

Government finally confirms that child separations due to ‘zero tolerance’ policy have ended

Nearly two weeks after President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing his family separation policy at the border – part of his “zero tolerance” approach to immigration – the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that such separations have stopped.

An HHS spokesperson emailed the PBS NewsHour late Monday writing, “We are not receiving anymore referrals as a result of the zero tolerance policy,” meaning children are no longer being referred to the agency because of the policy which had leveed criminal charges against their parents for crossing the border. That, in turn, immediately sent their mothers and fathers into detention with the Department of Homeland Security while children were handed into the care of HHS and sheltered in facilities across the country.

The question has hovered over the agencies involved since the president signed his executive order on June 20. Administration officials told reporters that it would take an unknown amount of time to fully implement the change in policy.

In a phone call a week ago, an HHS official refused to answer if the separations had ended, despite being asked three times. The agency has pointed out that it continues to receive children separated from parents for other reasons, including evidence of abuse. Those kinds of separations happened prior to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

On the same day that HHS stated the “zero tolerance” family separations have ended, the agency also indicated that it will provide less information, at least temporarily, about the children who have already been separated.

When the NewsHour asked for updated figures on the number of such children in HHS care, an agency spokesperson responded instead about the broader population of all those considered unaccompanied children, or UACs.

“We are providing the approximate number of total UAC in the care of HHS-funded (shelters),” the statement read. “While we understand the interest in detailed breakdowns of this information, our mission has been and remains to provide every minor transferred to HHS, regardless of the circumstances, with quality and age-appropriate care and a speedy and safe release to a sponsor.”

The response concluded, “Currently, there are more than 11,800 minors in our care.“

This was a change from previous weeks when HHS provided the number of “unaccompanied minors” who had become unaccompanied due to DHS detention of their parents. That figure was 2,047 a week ago and 2,053 the previous week.

The agency explained the lack of data this week by pointing to the injunction issued by a judge in California who ordered that separated families be reunited within 30 days, or within 14 days if the child is under five years old.

“(The injunction)… has expanded the parameters of previously publicly reported data regarding the circumstances of how a UAC in our database was referred to HHS custody. “

HHS declined to respond to the NewsHour’s questions about how the injunction changed parameters for the agency and why that affects public disclosure of the number of children being held.

“We are working with our partners at (Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection) to do a thorough review, cross checking multiple datasets among multiple agencies,” a spokesperson wrote.

Asked when the audit could be complete and data made public, a spokesperson responded, “Our team is working as expeditiously as possible.”

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