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Report: Number of families separated at the border unknown due to bad bookkeeping

The inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services paints the most detailed picture to date of the Trump administration's actions to separate immigrant families at the southern border. The report found that the government was separating children long before it announced its policy; thousands more may have been separated than previously reported. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A report issued today by an internal executive branch watchdog paints the most detailed picture to date about the Trump administration's actions to separate immigrant families at the southern border.

    It comes from the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That's the agency responsible for migrant children in federal care and custody who are separated from their guardians.

    Today's report runs 24 pages.

    And Amna Nawaz joins me now to share some of the details.

    So, hello.

    This is a story, Amna, you have been following for many months. Tell us what's new, what's significant in this report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this report lays bare the sheer scope and enormity of the Trump administration's family separation policy.

    Let's remember they formally announced that policy in May of 2018. And, when challenged in court, they had to say how many children they separated. Back then, they said it was around 3,000.

    The findings in this report say that they were separating children long before that policy was announced, almost a year before the policy was announced, and they may have separated thousands of more children than we previously reported.

    It also confirms what we have known for a long time, that there was never any centralized way to identify, track, or reunite these children. So, the bottom line is, Judy, we still do not know how many children were separated under the Trump administration's policy at the border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, they literally have no way, there was no accounting of the children, of the families, the children in these families that were taken from their parents?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have had hints along the way in the many months we have been reporting on this just how bad the bookkeeping was. We didn't know exactly how much until this report.

    When they first had to give a number, they said it was around 2,600, right? And over the next few months, they revised it up every time they said they had more information that came into their knowledge.

    Let's remember there are two agencies here. DHS does — DHS, rather, does the separating at the border, and then they hand over the children to HHS, who receives them for care and custody.

    I got a look at that shared database that they were trying to use to track children. There was never a check box that said, this child has been separated, or a space to put in information about their parent. It was up to the DHS officers to either choose or remember to put that in the comments section.

    And they found that in this report just how bad that bookkeeping was. When HHS noticed there was an uptick in separated children coming, they tried to informally track it.

    The report said, the staff initially recorded separated children on an Excel spreadsheet. This was later replaced by a SharePoint database. However, use of the tools was not formalized in procedures and access was limited.

    Judy, when they tried to bring people back together, they had to go through 60 different databases, sometimes just cross-referencing last names to try to figure out if kids were separated or not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what about what happened to these children? Do they have records, information about whether they ended up with their families, or did they end up going somewhere else?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alarmingly, this report doesn't detail it. We don't know if it's because we don't know what happened to the children.

    They say many of the children were released. We don't know if that means they were released to an aunt or an uncle or a cousin here in the U.S. Or, in many cases, which we have heard of happening, children would beg to be reunified with the parent they arrive with. They would go through a voluntary deportation and go back to their home country.

    There's also no insight — and it's noted in the report — why these kids were separated in the first place. As we noted before, HHS said they saw an uptick in kids coming in. And we know that overlapped with the time period that the government was test-running policy of family separation.

    Judy, it's worth pointing out that was eight months before they officially announced the policy, 10 months before the homeland security secretary tweeted this: "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period."

    We now know that was not true.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They had been doing it for months at that point.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For many, many months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, what is the Trump administration, what are federal agencies saying about this?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, both agencies involved, HHS and DHS, issued responses.

    HHS said: "We welcome the findings. We need to improve the process. We have improved the database." There's now a check box if a child has been separated, where someone should note that. They're also devoting staff to try to figure out if there are kids in the system who need to be reunified.

    More worrying, though, Judy, is the fact that they have also discovered in this report, long after the policy ended, separations continued.

    July to November of last year, at least 118 more separated kids came into their custody. And HHS defers to DHS to make that call when they meet the child and parent at the border.

    DHS had a statement that said, look, if the child seems to be in danger, or the parent is fraudulent, or there's criminal activity, we will continue to separate, because that's our policy.

    But it's worth pointing out, criminal activity is a pretty broad base for discretion. We found one case in which a parent had a burglary charge in their home country 10 years ago that never resulted in a conviction, and still had his child taken away from him.

    So, this is very much ongoing, and it's very much a live issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still going on months after the court said, stop this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Many, many months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz, great reporting. Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks Judy.

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