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DHS Inspector General: Trump Administration Deliberately Intended to Separate 26,000 Children With No Plan For the Chaos and Crisis They Knew Would Occur

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On a day many families were coming together to begin celebrating Thanksgiving, the DHS Inspector General (OIG) released a final report analyzing the horrific details of the Trump administration’s separation of thousands of families under the Zero Tolerance policy. What became clear in the OIG’s analysis was that the Trump administration was well aware of serious issues associated with separating families long before it implemented Zero Tolerance in 2018. And instead of first addressing these issues, the administration knowingly and deliberately implemented family separation border-wide and intended to separate 26,000 children with no plan to address the chaos that inevitably ensued.   

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said: “This OIG report marks the fourth government report that exhibits the depravity of the Trump administration’s motivation to implement widespread family separation at the southern border. Until this report, we knew that the Trump administration separated more than 5,000 children, but we had no idea they intended to separate 20,000 more if it weren’t for public outrage and a federal judge ordering them to stop six weeks into their depraved family separation plan. And while previous reports highlighted the lack of planning for separations and reunifications, this OIG report goes through in painstaking detail the serious deficiencies in planning, the resulting harm, and the clear awareness of issues that were deliberately ignored before full-scale family separation was implemented in 2018.”    

The following are key excerpts and conclusions from the OIG report:

Trump Administration Planned to Separate 26,000 Children  

“In early May 2018, CBP provided the Office of Management Budget (OMB) with estimates that it would separate more than 26,000 children between May and September 2018 because of Zero Tolerance.” (p. 17-18)

Trump Administration Experimented with Smaller-Scale Family Separation Policy Before the Plan to Separate 26,000 Children

“Border Patrol officials reported it conducted a prosecution initiative in FY 2017 in the El Paso Sector to deter illegal border crossings by increasing prosecutions, which resulted in an increase in family separations …Border Patrol ended the El Paso initiative on November 18, 2017, to further review the prosecution policy.” (p. 5)

“Through increased prosecutions, Border Patrol separated nearly 280 families — an increase from prosecuting 0 percent of adults with a family the month before the initiative began to prosecuting percent during the initiative.” (p. 14)

Due to Smaller-Scale Family Separation Pilot, Trump Administration Was Well Aware of Serious Issues Long Before Implementing Plan to Separate 26,000 Children in the Summer of 2018

“CBP officials have been aware of these IT deficiencies since at least November 2017 when U.S. Border Patrol conducted an initiative that mirrored the Zero Tolerance Policy.” (p. 7)

“In a July 2017 draft memo, El Paso Sector management acknowledged concerns from local judges that Border Patrol, ERO, and ORR needed a coordinated reunification plan for rejoining and repatriating families. However, they never developed a plan and children separated under the El Paso initiative could have remained separated from their parents for long periods.” (p. 24)

Trump Administration Did Nothing to Address Serious Issues 

“El Paso Sector agents requested assistance from CBP headquarters, but the necessary system changes were not made. According to Border Patrol headquarters personnel, El Paso Sector’s request for e3 functionality to track family separations was not a high enough priority to warrant the time and resources required for system modifications.” (p. 14-15)

“…the El Paso Sector provided an after-action report to Border Patrol’s Acting Chief of Operations calling for greater coordination among the various stakeholders. The following year, the same Acting Chief assisted in implementing Zero Tolerance and was aware of the need for improved coordination among CBP, ICE, and HHS ORR to address the known challenges encountered in separating migrant families.” (p. 15)

“…prior to policy implementation, DHS did not address deficiencies recognized and documented in 2017 that could potentially hamper the ability to track separated families.” (p. 18)

“One senior CBP official who participated in Zero Tolerance Policy planning meetings stated that key stakeholders had pressured DHS to implement the policy in early May 2018 before identified deficiencies in e3 were resolved.” (p.18-19)

“DHS did not begin discussing with HHS its approach for sharing information on family separations until April 2018 [just weeks before full scale family separation was implemented]…” (p. 20)

“DHS also did not provide adequate guidance to personnel responsible for executing the Zero Tolerance Policy.” (p. 7)

“…CBP provided guidance to Border Patrol field personnel after separations had already begun.  Specifically, on May 7, 2018, Border Patrol sent a memo and a 14-page presentation to field personnel instructing them on how to document family separations in Border Patrol IT systems….no accompanying system-based training was provided. The guidance also was not consistently communicated to staff responsible for carrying out these job duties. Some staff did not receive the guidance until several days after the policy was implemented.” (p. 22)

“Border Patrol headquarters also did not distribute procedural guidance and guidelines for achieving 100-percent prosecutions for all illegal migrants until the night before Zero Tolerance began.” (p. 22)

“In addition, Border Patrol did not effectively provide sectors with instruction on which children should be separated from their parents. On June 4, 2018, Border Patrol headquarters instructed Southwest Border sectors to stop separating children 12 years old and younger from their parents because of ORR capacity issues. However, some sectors continued to separate children younger than 12 through the end of Zero Tolerance on June 20, 2018. Following the June 4, 2018 instructions, Border Patrol separated almost 400 additional children 12 years old and younger, 15 of whom were 4 years of age or younger, risking detaining them longer than allowed in temporary holding facilities unsuited for children.” (p. 22)

“ICE personnel had direct responsibility for detaining and removing parents and tracking UAC. Yet many ICE headquarters and field personnel we interviewed stated they first learned through unofficial channels the policy was in place. Most ICE personnel stated they received no direct communication prior to policy implementation, either through ICE’s chain of command or through formal Department communication. ICE headquarters confirmed it did not broadcast information on Zero Tolerance Policy implementation to the field because it believed the policy would only affect CBP operations. One ICE ERO manager at headquarters said she would have provided prepared messaging on Zero Tolerance if she had been aware beforehand that the policy would be implemented.” (p. 23)

“As recently as March 2019, CBP’s Commissioner stated in congressional testimony that CBP IT systems still needed improvements to track separated children effectively.” (p. 21)

Due to Failure in Planning and IT Tracking of Families, OIG Can NOT Confirm Accuracy of Numbers of Separated Children or Reunifications

“Due to the number of errors Border Patrol made in recording family separations, we determined that there was a high risk that DHS did not account for all separated children.” (p. 27)

“Because of these IT deficiencies, we could not confirm the total number of families DHS separated during the Zero Tolerance period …Without a reliable account of all family relationships, we could not validate the total number of separations, or reunifications.” (p. 8)

“We tried, but could not confirm the accuracy of Border Patrol’s reported estimate that 3,014 children were separated during the policy period.” (p. 24)

“We found 136 children with potential family relationships that were not recorded by Border Patrol during this period [May 5 – June 20, 2018].” (p. 28)

“We found 1,233 minors with potential family relationships uncounted by DHS, including 584 before Zero Tolerance, and 649 after Zero Tolerance — in addition to the 136 minors discovered during Zero Tolerance, whom Border Patrol apprehended, potentially with their family members, but who were not included in DHS’ reported numbers of family units or groups.35 Despite these indicators in the data, we found no record in DHS’ system that these 1,233 minors were part of family units or groups.” (p. 28)

Zero Tolerance Created Even More Problems, Especially for the Health and Safety of Children

“DHS and HHS expended significant financial and staff resources to keep pace with the additional work required for execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy. Border Patrol reportedly spent more than 28,000 hours and $1.2 million in overtime to support Zero Tolerance-related activities.” (p. 34) 

“In part, because of the increased apprehensions, Border Patrol facilities reached or exceeded full capacity, resulting in overly crowded conditions, as we observed during our site visits.” (p. 35)

“We reviewed records for 212,935 minors from October 1, 2017, to February 14, 2019, and determined that prior to Zero Tolerance, approximately 16 percent of children were held in custody longer than 72 hours. In contrast, during Zero Tolerance, we found 39 percent of separated children were held beyond 72 hours, including 192 children who remained in CBP facilities for more than 6 days — twice the time limit allowed. CBP held six children in custody during Zero Tolerance for 10 days or more.” (p. 36)

Court-Ordered Reunification Was Poorly Planned, Chaotic, and Critically Beyond Deadline

“Prior to Zero Tolerance implementation, the Department did not establish a plan for how CBP, ICE, and HHS would successfully reunify separated family members.” (p. 23)

“The process to reunify children with their families was disjointed, as DHS and HHS transferred children and parents all over the country to different facilities in different cities and states.” (p. 32)

“More concerning, reunifications were coordinated entirely by email instead of using a system of record to share sensitive information on actions taken.” (p. 32)

“An ICE field office director in Texas said the emails came as often as every 5 minutes and other ICE officers said that children arrived at the detention centers at all hours of the day and night. Multiple ICE personnel supporting reunifications described the process as chaotic.” (p. 32)

“ICE was sometimes unable to transfer parents in time to meet arriving children because ICE did not always receive adequate notice from HHS that children were arriving. On at least one occasion, after receiving no corresponding email notification, ICE personnel were surprised when a child arrived at a detention center. In some cases, children had to wait hours or even stay overnight at hotels, before their parents arrived at detention centers for reunification. One ICE detention center supervisor said there was limited on-site space for children, and this space was packed with children waiting for their parents to arrive and for ICE to process their reunifications.” (p. 33)

“DHS also estimated it had completed 2,155 reunifications in response to a court order, although this effort continued for 7 months beyond the July 2018 deadline for reunifying children with their parents.” (p. 8)

OIG Notes Trump Administration Failed to Achieve Deterrent Effect

“DHS spent thousands of hours and well in excess of $1 million in overtime costs supporting Zero Tolerance. However, the policy did not achieve its intended goal of deterring the practice of “Catch-and-Release.” Instead, the number of apprehensions continued to rise, and ICE was releasing thousands of detainees into the United States almost immediately.” (p. 34)

“…the number of apprehensions of family units continued to rise throughout the Zero Tolerance period. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 400 additional families along the Southwest Border during the 2 months Zero Tolerance was in place, during May and June 2018, as compared with the 2 months prior to the policy’s implementation, from March to April 2018.” (p. 34)

“The increasing number of apprehensions resulted in ICE’s release of thousands of detainees into the United States almost immediately. This continued throughout Zero Tolerance, even though the policy was intended to end the practice of ‘Catch-and-Release.’” (p. 34)

DHS Continues to Deny Culpability and Drag Its Feet on OIG Recommendations  

“The Director stated that in compliance with the Ms. L. v. ICE preliminary injunction, HHS and DHS undertook a significant effort to identify children in HHS ORR care who had been separated from parents and to reunify them. While we agree that DHS and HHS conducted significant review effort, as noted in our report, this review did not include a search for all potentially separated children. Specifically, Border Patrol only searched for children separated during Zero Tolerance whose case records contained deleted family units.” (p. 39)

“The Director stated that the DHS, HHS, and Department of Justice numbers had undergone rigorous double and triple checking by relevant agencies …Despite the Director’s assertion that our report inaccurately characterizes the level of certainty with which DHS and HHS identified separated parents and children, the Director also concedes this is a significant effort, which remains ongoing 15 months after Zero Tolerance ended. Because this effort is ongoing, we question how DHS can assert our numbers are not correct, when in fact, DHS and HHS are still working to validate the number of family separations that have occurred since July 2017.” (p. 40)

“We acknowledge the Department’s efforts to improve training on tracking separated family members. The updated PowerPoint helps meet the intent of this recommendation; however, we received no documentation on the Department distributing the PowerPoint to the field, or on its instruction to field personnel to ensure two-step level supervisory review for all separations. We also recognize Border Patrol’s establishment of a working group as a positive step toward implementing process improvements for tracking separated migrant family members; however, we still require documentation in this regard. We consider this recommendation resolved and open.” (p. 42)

OIG Clearly Debunks Myth Propagated by Trump Administration that Previous Administration Did This Too

Before Zero Tolerance Policy implementation, DHS played a minimal role in reunifying migrant families, as separations rarely occurred. For example, when CBP apprehended an alien family unit attempting to enter the United States illegally, it usually placed the adult in civil immigration proceedings without referring him or her for criminal prosecution. CBP only separated apprehended parents from children in limited circumstances—e.g., if the adult had a criminal history or an outstanding warrant, or if CBP could not determine whether the adult was the child’s parent or legal guardian. Accordingly, in most instances, family units either remained together in family detention centers operated by ICE while their civil immigration cases were pending, or they were released into the United States with orders to appear in immigration court at a later date.” (p. 5)