The Trump administration misled the nation during the family separations crisis when it claimed to have a “central database” to help illegal immigrant parents reunite with their children, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general said in a report made public Tuesday.
That was just one of a series of bungles that plagued the “zero tolerance” border policy the administration pursued in the spring and which led to thousands of children being separated from their parents.
The audit found the government lacked a reliable way to track children and parents once they were separated, some children were stuck for more than three weeks in what was supposed to be three-day custody, would-be asylum seekers were left with mixed messages about how to enter the country and avoid getting arrested, and the government actually pushed people to jump the border by hindering their entry through the official ports of entry.
The devastating report concludes that the government “was not fully prepared” to carry out the zero tolerance policy when it was announced.
Democrats, who had demanded the report, said it confirmed their worst fears.
“This IG report makes clear that administration officials knowingly lied to the American people,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. “We cannot stay silent as the Trump administration abuses immigrant families to push for a blatantly racist agenda. We are better than this.”
Homeland Security disputed some of the report’s findings, saying the management of people at the official ports of entry is separate from the zero tolerance policy for illegal border crossers.
A department spokeswoman said the chaos the inspector general identified was spawned by poorly written laws and the administration is trying to curtail illegal immigration within a broken framework.
“This administration will no longer turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and will continue to refer illegal border crossers for prosecution,” she said. “We are committed to enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that there are consequences for illegal actions.”
Trump administration officials began the zero tolerance policy in the spring to try to tamp down 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 will 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 couldn’t reliably track the children and families across the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services.
The children separated from their parents were supposed to be quickly turned over to Health and Human Services, but in at least a third of cases the government broke the three-day limit — and in at least one case agents in Texas kept a child in custody for 25 days, the audit found.
Government computers weren’t connected, so when a family was separated at the border, neither the deportation agency nor HHS, charged with taking custody of children without parents, was able to see critical data in the system. They had to resort to emails and Microsoft Word documents.
The audit specifically rebuts Homeland Security’s claim in a June 23 fact sheet that it had a “central database” that it and HHS could use to track the separated families.
The inspector general’s office, or OIG, “found no evidence that such a database exists. The OIG team asked several [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] 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.
“We now know, contrary to what the Trump administration has told us, that it blatantly broke the law and repeatedly kept children in the CBP custody – often in cages – for longer than the 72-hour limit,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “We also now know the administration lied about keeping a central database to keep track of children that were under the care of DHS and HHS.”
Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, renewed his call for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down.
The Justice Department’s inspector general announced it would conduct its own investigation into that department’s handling of prosecutions under zero tolerance.
Homeland Security officials say the zero tolerance prosecutions applied only to people caught jumping the border, not to those who showed up at official ports of entry seeking asylum.
But the inspector general said chaos was evident at the ports, too, in the practice of “metering,” or limiting the number of people allowed to make asylum claims at any time. Homeland Security officials said that was an effort to keep order and make sure they had enough space to process and hold people — but activists said it was part of an effort to discourage legal asylum claims.
The investigation dispelled some of the more dramatic claims, including press reports that officers were threatening asylum-seekers or giving them false information. The audit found no evidence to back that up.
And investigators said they were unable to sustain the claim of an activist group that asylum-seekers were turned away even when there was enough space to handle them.
But the audit did say that the limits on how many people could claim asylum were confusing given that the administration was telling people to show up at the legal ports rather than jump the border.
Both Border Patrol officials and illegal immigrants told the auditors that when the ports of entry are backed up, more people attempt to jump the border illegally.
“One woman said she had been turned away three times by an officer on the bridge before deciding to take her chances on illegal entry,” the investigation said.
In the official response included in the report, Homeland Security liaison Jim H. Crumpacker 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.