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A New Report Reveals How Family Separation Led Border Officials to Break the Law

Unprepared for the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy, overwhelmed border officials illegally detained children in unfit facilities, among other failures.
A boy is taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12th, 2018, near Mission, Texas.

A boy is taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12th, 2018, near Mission, Texas.

A new government report has found that the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy overwhelmed the country's unprepared immigration infrastructure. Among other failures, the report found that under-resourced border authorities broke the law and detained children for illegal amounts of time at facilities meant for short-term holding.

The newly released internal report from the Department of Homeland Security begins its timeline with Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement of the zero-tolerance policy in April. In a speech that day, Sessions announced that the United States would prosecute all adults traveling with children as criminals. Because federal guidelines limit how long children can be held in criminal detention, the prosecute-all policy forced border officials to separate children from their parents as the parents were detained in anticipation of criminal proceedings. Before the policy imploded in June, thousands of children were separated from their parents at the border.

In the new report, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security wrote that the DHS "was not fully prepared to implement the Administration's Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its after-effects."

Besides detailing how children were kept for illegally long amounts of time in short-term holding facilities, the report described how a lack of communication between government agencies rendered officials unable to locate children's parents when they sought to reunite them; how parents were given misinformation about how (and if) they could reunite with their children; and how policies at overwhelmed official ports of entry compelled many asylum seekers to attempt illegal border crossings.

Here are some key takeaways from the report.

DHS Officially Acknowledged That the Zero-Tolerance Policy Led Directly to Family Separation 

Though this might now seem obvious, for months, many senior officials refused to acknowledge what this report clearly admits: that the Trump administration created a policy that forced family separations. According to the report, the policy "fundamentally changed" the DHS's approach to immigration enforcement:

Because minor children cannot be held in criminal custody with an adult, alien adults who entered the United States illegally would have to be separated from any accompanying minor children when the adults were referred for criminal prosecution.

Border Officials Illegally Detained Migrant Children in Facilities Intended Solely for Short-Term Holding

The IG report revealed that overwhelmed Customs and Border Protection agents illegally detained many children well over the 72-hour limit. One child was held for 12 days, and 237 out of 855 unaccompanied children were detained for more than 72 hours at the facilities the IG team visited.

An overwhelming body of research shows that detention can have dangerous and long-lasting psychological effects on children. Federal law and judicial action strictly regulate how long and in what conditions the government can detain minors. In the case of the CBP's short-term holding facilities, the law states that, absent "extraordinary circumstances," the CBP cannot detain children for more than 72 hours. 

Misinformation Misled Parents Before and After Their Children Were Taken From Them

The report describes parents who were separated from their children without being given any information about how—and if ever—they could see their children again. Though the DHS prepared multi-lingual flyers for border agents to disseminate to parents before they were separated from their children, the IG interviewed multiple detainees who were never given such information or were only given information after their children had been taken from them. In one story, the report describes agents misleading a migrant father:

[The father] stated that when he left the Border Patrol facility to appear in court for prosecution, a Border Patrol Agent told him that his [five]-year-old daughter would still be at the Border Patrol facility when he returned. When he arrived at court, however, he was given a short flyer that explained for the first time that he would be separated from his child. After his court hearing, he was driven back to the same Border Patrol facility, but not taken inside. Instead, he was placed on a bus to be transferred to an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention facility without his daughter.

The IG report also found that, once separated from their children, parents continued to receive inaccurate, inconsistent, or incomplete information about how they could contact or reunite with their children. Poor explanation and ineffective infrastructure prevented many of the parents the inspectors interviewed from talking to their children while in detention. 

The Government Failed to Keep Effective Records of Where Parents and Children Were Separated and Bungled Attempts to Reunite Families

The report states that "information technology and data issues" continue to "make it difficult for DHS to identify, track, and reunify separated families." Many of these problems stem from the fact that the agencies that manage parent detention are different from the agencies that manage child relocation, and these agencies fail to share information. In fact, many ICE agents did not receive notice from CBP that many of the adults in their custody had been separated from their children.

The lack of communication between departments created serious challenges when the government attempted to reunite families, as it was compelled to do by a court order in late June. The report found that government agencies are still attempting to reunite a number of children with their parents. And because of inaccurate, incomplete, or otherwise unreliable data, the administration remains unable to accurately report how many children are still separated from their parents.

The report also found that the DHS might have misled the public about the government's efforts to rectify these information-sharing shortfalls: Though the DHS claimed in June that it had created a "central database" shared with the Department of Health and Human Services (which is in charge of caring for separated children), the inspectors reported that they had not found any evidence that this database exists.