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Homeland Security grossly understated family separations, watchdog says

IG found far more separations than Customs and Border Patrol had acknowledged

A woman holds an anti-Zero Tolerance policy sign at a protest outside the White House in 2018.
A woman holds an anti-Zero Tolerance policy sign at a protest outside the White House in 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Customs and Border Protection separated dozens more migrant children at ports of entry in 2018 than it publicly attested to at the height of the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog.

The department’s Office of Inspector General identified at least 60 families that were separated in 2018, while CBP claimed it had separated only seven asylum-seeking parents from their children. The report looked at a specific two-month period, from May 6 to July 9.

In its report, the OIG notes that more than half of the separations were based solely on prior immigration violations of the parents, which was “inconsistent with official DHS public messages.” As a result, 40 children — the youngest of whom was 5 months old — were separated from their parents in contradiction to stated government practice.

In its response to the findings, CBP took issue with the inspector general’s suggestion “that CBP personnel separated families without regard for the health, welfare, safety, and reunification of inadmissible asylum-seeking applicants for admission, which is incorrect.”

“CBP is committed to the care and processing of individuals in its custody with the utmost dignity and respect, and has taken steps to ensure an enhanced standard of care in response to the humanitarian crisis at the Southwest Border,” senior CBP official, Henry A. Moak, Jr., said in the formal response, which was included in the report’s appendix.

In the spring of 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a “zero tolerance” policy, resulting in the criminal prosecution of thousands of adults who were separated from their children following their unauthorized crossing at the southern U.S. border.

The children were labeled “unaccompanied” and placed in the care of the Health and Human Services Department. According to public officials at the time, families presenting themselves at ports of entry to seek asylum would not be separated except in limited circumstances — such as if the parents presented a danger to the child’s safety. 

On June 20, after widespread public outcry, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing that families be detained together. While the administration did not officially drop the “zero tolerance” policy, it ended wide scale family separation. Soon after, a federal judge ruled against the practice and ordered affected children to be reunited with their parents. CBP agents continued to separate certain families, however, citing previous criminal records and other reasons for their actions.

In November 2019, the DHS watchdog published a report finding that the administration lacked the technology to track 26,000 children it projected separating from their parents at the U.S. southern border as a part of the “zero tolerance” policy. DHS ultimately reported only about 3,000 children being separated, but the IG considers that a severe underestimate.

“Because of these IT deficiencies, we could not confirm the total number of families DHS separated during the Zero Tolerance period,” the inspector general said in the report.

This past March, the Government Accountability Office also took issue with CBP tracking and found that “separations from June 2018 through March 2019 weren’t accurately tracked — and agents inconsistently recorded details.”

In its new report, the DHS inspector general again highlighted past concerns about the parent agency’s “ability to accurately identify and address all family separations due to data reliability issues.”  

“Although CBP’s system for tracking aliens at the ports of entry included a data field that could be used for separated children, CBP officials said staff did not use the data field consistently,” the oversight group finds. “As a result, [CBP’s Office of Field Operations] may have separated more families before June 2018 than those we could identify.”

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