A government watchdog report made public confirms what many media outlets, immigration lawyers and advocates have said for months after the Trump administration rolled out its “zero tolerance” policy earlier this spring: Officials were not prepared.
At the top of its 25-page report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General Office said the agency was “not fully prepared to implement” the policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents, nor was it prepared to “deal with some of its after-effects.”
After DHS officials started separating migrant families and transferring children to Department of Health and Human Services care, a result of the policy introduced in May, advocates and lawyers denounced the practice, saying it may have permanent, traumatic effects on the families. Some migrant parents, in personal declarations filed in court, also said they were coerced into signing away their reunification rights.
After President Donald Trump halted the practice of separating families with an executive order in June, reuniting eligible families became a court-imposed imperative for the federal government. Today, the majority of the more than 2,600 children separated from their families at the border have been reunited with their parents. But 136 migrant children remain separated, and advocates say reunited families will continue to grapple with long term emotional and psychological effects, the extent of which are not yet fully understood.
Here are some takeaways from the IG report and what’s next.
DHS provided “inconsistent information to aliens who arrived with children” when the policy was in place.
This resulted in “some parents not understanding that they would be separated from their children, and being unable to communicate with their children after separation,” the report said. This is in line with personal declarations filed by parents in court, saying they were given a handful of minutes to decide their family’s future or didn’t fully understand the implications of what they were being told to sign. Some representatives for these parents said the forms were in English and not Spanish, or, that parents weren’t given the opportunity to ask questions about the forms. Other parents said they didn’t trust the immigration officials so refrained from signing any documentation.
Other findings about communication:
- A bilingual flyer — “Next Steps for Families” — was made to explain the separation process. It included information on how parents could locate and speak with their children. Investigators said at least one detainee at the Port Isabel Detention Center said they had never seen the flyer. Three others said they were given a copy after they were already separated from their children.
- One mother told investigators she was having difficulty with a toll-free hotline number given to parents to get more information about their children. When investigators assisted the mother on a call to the hotline, a federal operator said she couldn’t release information about her child because “the operator could not ascertain parentage over the telephone.”
- Children who were not yet verbal were not consistently identified by border officials — either by wrist bracelets, photograph or fingerprints — to ensure they could later be correctly tracked or relinked with their parents.
Officials used “metering” to manage the flow of potential asylum-seekers.
When the administration rolled out its zero tolerance policy, it repeatedly stressed that asylum-seekers ought to enter the U.S. through official ports of entry; if they entered this way, asylum-seekers wouldn’t break the country’s immigration laws, official said. However, the report said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents used a technique called “metering” — a practice that has been used since 2016 — to limit the flow of people looking to enter the U.S. through those ports.
Here’s how it worked, according to the report: CBP processing facilities are a short distance from U.S. side of the border with Mexico. Normally, an asylum-seeker would cross the pedestrian footbridge linking the two countries. They would walk on U.S. soil to reach the CBP facility. While metering, CBP officers stood at the dividing line on the bridge and radioed in to see if there would be available space for the asylum-seeker when they arrived at the CBP office. The report said officers only allowed the asylum-seeker to cross the line unless there was space. Otherwise, they’d tell the individual that the port was at capacity. This “may have led to additional illegal border crossings,” the report said.
The IG team observed one port of entry attempting to make more space available at the facility, the report noted. But the team also saw evidence that metering led “some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.” One example the report cited: A woman said she tried illegally crossing into the U.S. after she was turned away by an officer on the bridge three times.
The PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz saw first-hand how CBP officials stopped migrants at the international border, before they could cross in the U.S. to make an asylum claim. This was the NewsHour’s report from late June.
DHS “struggled to identify, track and reunify families.”
The IG report said this was because of limitations of the agency’s IT systems. This is partly because there’s not a “fully integrated” information system among all the U.S. agencies involved with immigration. This “made it difficult for DHS to reliably track separated parents and children,” the report said.
In media calls throughout the summer, when reporters had asked immigration officials about how they were tracking the separated families, there didn’t appear to be a formal process — or at least not one communicated to journalists. As a program coordinator for the immigrant rights group Kids in Need of Defense once described to The New Yorker, it would take days to just discern the location of a separated child.
Also, detailed information on separated families, including more specifics on all who were separated and the statuses of their cases, didn’t materialize for the public until a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, leading a judge to order the data’s release.
A more notable finding by investigators: On June 23, DHS said it had a “central database” that had location information on the separated families. Investigators “found no evidence” of a database.
CBP held separated children in detention for longer periods of time.
Under the policy, the agency held separated children for long periods in government-approved facilities that were “intended solely for short-term detention,” the report said.
U.S. immigration law stipulates that CBP is allowed to hold migrant children for up to 72 hours before they’re transferred to the care of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. But CBP “exceeded the 72-hour period in many instances,” the report said.
In fact, 237 of 855 unaccompanied migrant children at facilities visited by investigators in June were detained for more than 72 hours after entering the U.S. between ports of entry, according to the report. One child, whose age isn’t given, was in custody for more than 280 hours, or about 12 days.
The report said that Border Patrol officials said there may have been delays on behalf of HHS to accept some of the children, or, delays in transportation. The report also said that CBP officials “may have inadvertently omitted critical information” in their child placement requests to HHS. For instance, at least two CBP officials recalled to investigators that HHS contacted them several times in a given day for missing information. The officials said it would have been helpful to have an HHS employe on site.
What’s been the response to the report?
In response to the NewsHour, DHS said in a statement that the IG report’s findings “illustrate the difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written.”
The statement continued: “The report fails to understand where the Zero Tolerance Policy took effect: in between the ports of entry. CBP has and will continue to accept and process claims of credible fear at the ports of entry in addition to protecting the safety and security [of] American communities from nefarious actors and drugs. This administration will no longer turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and will continue to refer illegal border crossers for prosecution. We are committed to enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that there are consequences for illegal actions.”
After the report was released, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois tweeted that its findings showed that the “humanitarian crisis that resulted was not only predictable, but apparently orchestrated.” He then called on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, a move he has made before.
“It is completely unacceptable that no one in the Trump Administration has been held accountable for the humanitarian crisis created by its family separation policy,” he later tweeted.
The report stops short of recommending corrective action.
The IG said the report was meant to “highlight issues” behind the administration’s handling of separated families and that it anticipated a “more in-depth review” into some of the listed issues in the future. It’s unclear what timeline the IG intends to follow up on this report.