- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Separation of illegal immigrant families nabbed at the border began to increase around the start of the Trump administration, the government’s chief watchdog reported Wednesday — meaning it was happening well before the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance border policy.

But that policy, announced in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, created a major spike in separations and took the Homeland Security and Health departments by surprise, leaving them unprepared to grapple with the thousands of children who were then taken from parents who ended up in jail, the Government Accountability Office reported.

Neither department even had a way of marking in their databases whether a child had been separated from parents, the GAO said.

Health and Homeland Security officials have since worked to come up with ways to track separated children, but the GAO said it’s too early to see if that will help reunify families.

The separations became a major black eye for the administration, with both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill saying the practice was cruel and was being done ham-handed.

Wednesday’s report is the second to conclude that the government did not have a way of tracking separated children — contradicting claims Homeland Security made in a press release that it had a database that could do so.

“How many more reports of incompetence at HHS do we need before Congress finally takes action and holds Secretary Azar accountable for his role in the family separation crisis?” said Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, an activist group.

The zero-tolerance policy was largely eliminated when President Trump signed an executive order in late June curtailing most family separations. Without those separations, it became much more difficult to prosecute illegal immigrant parents.

Yet some separations go on — just as some did before the zero-tolerance policy was announced in April.

The GAO said that at the end of the Obama administration about three out of every 1,000 children were separated from parents. By March 2017, the first months of the Trump administration, that had grown to 26 out of every 1,000, and reached 37 per 1,000 by August 2017.

Reasons for the rise included an early Sessions memo prioritizing prosecutions of illegal immigrants, and a deal between the Border Patrol and federal prosecutors in New Mexico to take more cases.

Border officials also told GAO that they saw an increase in people fraudulently claiming to be parents, and in those cases children were also separated.

The Health Department didn’t provide an official response to the GAO, while Homeland Security, in its response, said its agents and officers follow the law and work to protect those in custody.

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