Inspector general says DHS misled over family separations

October 2, 2018

The Trump administration appears to have misled the country when it claimed it had created a “central database” to reunify illegal immigrant children separated from their families during the “zero tolerance” policy earlier this year, Homeland Security’s inspector general says in a new report.

Investigators “found no evidence that such a database exists,” and identified a number of other bungles that led to children being left in short-term detention facilities far longer than allowed under the law, that sent mixed messages to people trying to claim asylum, and may actually have made illegal crossings worse by trying to block people from coming through official ports of entry.

The devastating report concludes that the government “was not fully prepared” to carry out the zero-tolerance policy at the time it was announced.

The audit, dated Sept. 27 and released this week, called into question the government’s reporting to the courts about its progress in reunifying families separated during the height of zero tolerance, pointing specifically to a father who the inspector general says should have qualified for speedy reunification but wasn’t actually reconnected until September, or two months late.

Parents, meanwhile, were given mixed messages.

One father the audit spoke to said he was taken from a Border Patrol facility to a criminal court hearing, and was told he would be reunified with his daughter back at the Border Patrol facility afterward. But instead he was put on a bus to be shipped to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, without his daughter.

In other cases the government could have reunited children with parents at border facilities after the adults were sentenced to time served but U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t want to do the extra paperwork to readmit the parents to their custody, so the family was instead separated, the audit found.

Trump administration officials began the zero tolerance policy in the spring to try to tamp down on a surge of illegal immigrant families showing up at the border hoping to take advantage of a “loophole” in policy that treats families more leniently than single adult illegal immigrants.

Under the policy, families are processed and quickly released on the often-vain hope that they’ll return for deportation later. Single adults, meanwhile, are usually detained until their cases are finished.

Zero tolerance saw the government attempt to lodge criminal charges against illegal border crossers and since the criminal justice system can’t house families, it often meant children were separated from parents who illegally crossed.

The separations became a national scandal, with the inspector general concluding the government didn’t couldn’t reliably track the children and families across Homeland Security, the Justice Department and Health and Human Services.

The children separated from their parents were also supposed to be quickly turned over to the Health Department, but in at least a third of cases the government broke the three-day limit and in one case in Texas kept a child in custody for 25 days, the audit found.

The audit specifically rebuts Homeland Security’s claim in a June 23 fact sheet that it had a “central database” it and HHS could use to track the separated families.

“OIG found no evidence that such a database exists. The OIG team asked several ICE employees, including those involved with DHS’ reunification efforts at ICE Headquarters, if they knew of such a database, and they did not,” the inspector general said.

Democrats said the report was a piercing indictment of the government’s policy.

“Based on this report, it appears that Trump Administration officials not only kept these children longer than the law allows, but they also falsely told the American people they were tracking these kids when they clearly were not,” said Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

He called on Congress to issue subpoenas to demand more information on what went wrong.

Homeland Security, in its official response to the report, thanks the audit for exposing computer problems. But Jim H. Crumpacker, the department’s liaison to the inspector general, complained that investigators were conflating too many parts of border policy in an audit on zero tolerance.

He also said Homeland Security deserves credit for “significant accomplishments” in reunifying families after the separation practice was ended, both by a presidential executive order and a subsequent court ruling.

Mr. Crumpacker did seem to acknowledge the government didn’t have a centralized database, saying that HHS and Homeland Security’s “tracking systems have no direct electronic interface.” But he said they made “exhaustive efforts to overcome this challenge” to meet the court’s order for reunifying families.

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