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Emails show internal agency confusion on family separations

A House Judiciary panel report found that HHS, which cared for the migrant kids, didn't initially know about the practice

A woman protests the government's "zero tolerance" policy at the Families Belong Together protest outside the White House in June 2018.
A woman protests the government's "zero tolerance" policy at the Families Belong Together protest outside the White House in June 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Internal Trump administration records released Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee reveal new details on how the White House separated migrant families at the border and shielded details of the practice from agency partners responsible for the children taken from their parents.

The documents were made public for the first time as a part of a report on an investigation of family separations launched by committee Democrats in January 2019. They include emails between top Health and Human Services Department officials questioning Department of Homeland Security efforts over separation and reunification efforts.

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Altogether, the records demonstrate how top DHS officials — particularly in Customs and Border Protection — played a central role in implementing the policy. They also show how they considered separating families even after a court blocked the practice and ordered children to be reunited with their relatives. The report notes that more than 860 complaints, many from HHS employees, were filed over the issue to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. 

Trump administration officials, who were not provided a draft of the report prior to its release, were not immediately available for comment. 

News investigations and government watchdog reports revealed that the Trump administration started piloting family separations in the El Paso sector of Texas in 2017 — a year before the official “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in widespread separations was publicly announced in April 2018. 

One November 2017 email included in the Judiciary Committee report noted concerns about those preliminary separations. In that message, Jonathan White, who oversaw housing for unaccompanied children at the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, asked then-Customs and Border Protection chief Kevin McAleenan why so many more separated children — “both in raw numbers, and in particular, as proportion of total referrals” — were being referred to his agency.

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White included a chart with HHS data showing that in October 2016, 60 out of 7,420 referrals, or 0.8 percent, were of separated children. After Trump took office the following January, that share started to rise. In July 2017, the number of separated kids referred to HHS had increased to 44 out of 2,264 — or 1.9 percent. The maximum that year was in August, when 98 children, or 3.6 percent of 2,727 referrals, were children who had been separated from family members. 

In December, McAleenan responded to White’s email: “You should have seen a change in the last ten days or so. We will be coordinating in advance on future plans.”

McAleenan, who later became acting Homeland Security secretary, didn’t mention the pilot program, which other reporting and documents show ran from June to November of 2017.  

Reunification chaos 

In June 2018, after public outcry, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring that asylum-seeking families be detained together, effectively ending widespread separations that had started two months earlier. A court order also blocked the practice in June — with some exceptions — and ordered that all families be reunited. 

Government watchdog reports have since found that DHS lacked the capacity to track the children and parents it had separated. 

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The Judiciary Committee report includes several exchanges that detail the chaos in the reunification efforts and the lack of cohesive coordination, including one in which top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Matt Albence expressed confusion about why the migrants parents’ information was not being logged along with the children’s. 

It also includes an email from CBP headquarters, on behalf of McAleenan, that suggests the administration was considering separating parents from children for short amounts of time, even after the court order blocking the practice. On June 29, 2018, the CBP email asked Border Patrol chiefs to respond with information that would help determine whether it would be possible to prosecute the parents and then return them to their children the same day.

Government watchdog reports and documents made public through litigation have demonstrated that the administration repeatedly understated how many families it had separated. In 2019, court proceedings resulted in the acknowledgement that at least 5,500 children were separated — including separations before “zero tolerance” was officially implemented and those that occurred in certain cases after it had effectively ended.

In a status report filed in court last week, the administration argued that it could not find the parents of at least 545 children. Of these “unreachable” parents, two-thirds were likely deported back to their countries of origin, the administration believed.

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