The Trump administration still doesn’t know how many illegal immigrant children were separated from their parents during last year’s zero-tolerance border fiasco, and it went ahead with the separations even though it knew it didn’t have the computer systems to help reunite the families later, according to a scathing inspector general’s report released Wednesday.
Auditors said they spotted nearly 1,400 cases in which children might have been separated but were not flagged by the Department of Homeland Security,
The pain of the separations was all for naught, the audit said, because the goal of the zero-tolerance policy — ending the abuse of the system by illegal immigrant families — wasn’t reached.
“Although intended to reduce the practice of ‘Catch-and-Release,’ the policy had the unexpected consequences of overburdening [Customs and Border Protection] and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] resources, and over-taxing facilities for detaining migrants at the Southwest border,” the investigators said in the report.
Among the biggest revelations is that Homeland Security conducted a test run of zero tolerance in the El Paso, Texas, region in 2017 and knew its systems weren’t up to the task of tracking separated families.
Yet officials went ahead anyway.
“CBP officials have been aware of these IT deficiencies since at least November 2017,” the audit found.
The zero-tolerance policy was concocted by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in spring 2018, when caravans of Central American families were streaming north. An angry President Trump demanded action.
The families were taking advantage of a “loophole” in U.S. immigration policy that resulted in the quick release of adults who brought children to the border. Single adults, meanwhile, were more likely to be quickly deported and often faced criminal charges for illegal entry.
Under zero tolerance, the adults who brought children were also to be charged with illegal entry.
Prosecutions jumped from about 20% of illegal crossers to 50% of illegal crossers, Homeland Security officials say.
But because the jails were only for adults charged with illegal entry, their children were put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once separated, the federal government had little idea how to track the various units of each family, the inspector general said, making reunification a nightmare.
The audit says that while the computer system allowed Border Patrol agents to note that a family was separated, it lacked the ability to say that it was because of the zero-tolerance policy. That left Border Patrol agents to adopt “ad hoc techniques” to try to solve the situation in the middle of the crisis, but those tactics introduced more data errors.
After a federal judge ordered the families to be reunited, the scope of the errors became clear.
“Border Patrol immediately struggled to keep pace with the high volume of migrant apprehensions and separations resulting from Zero Tolerance,” the audit found. “They also could not determine how many children in Border Patrol custody were separated from parent(s) at any given time.”
Another problem was the number of agencies involved, with no systems that easily interfaced with one another. Border Patrol agents would turn the parents over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and eventually to the Justice Department for prosecution, while the children ended up with HHS.
One Border Patrol station resorted to using a whiteboard and dry-erase markers to track families, but as the audit noted, that “could accidentally be erased.”
ICE officers ended up building their own Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to try to track the children.
The inspector general said Homeland Security had at least six months between the El Paso zero-tolerance test run in November 2017 and the beginning of borderwide zero tolerance on May 4, 2018, yet didn’t fix the information technology problems.
Even the goal of zero tolerance was a failure, the audit said. A staggering 82% of the parents under zero tolerance got “minimal” or no jail time.
Even in those cases, parents were denied immediate reunification with their children, investigators found.
When the government did try to reunite families, its efforts were again hindered by the lack of computer systems able to communicate across agency boundaries. That left HHS workers coordinating with ICE by email, feeding into mistakes.
Some children were sent to ICE for reunification, only to find that their parents weren’t there. They arrived at all hours of the day and night and had to be housed in hotels to await their parents’ arrival.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee has been investigating the separations. Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, said the inspector general’s report gives them new material to work with.
“Previous independent reports showed that the administration failed to track these children, and now we know why: a rush to execute a callous and unnecessary policy and a willful blindness to known problems,” she said.
She pointed to a section of the report that revealed the problems could have been even worse.
Auditors uncovered a Homeland Security projection sent to the White House that predicted more than 26,000 children would be separated under zero tolerance over the last five months of fiscal 2018.
The program lasted less than two months and separated at least 3,000 children — though the exact number is not clear nearly 18 months later, thanks partly to the technology problems and high error rates in Border Patrol agents’ records.
The inspector general identified more than 1,300 children who may have been separated before, during and after zero tolerance, but whom Homeland Security hasn’t acknowledged.
“We are concerned that if DHS did not properly record all family information in its IT systems, it may have underestimated and may not be able to determine accurately the number of family separations that occurred from October 2017 to February 2019,” the audit said.
Homeland Security, in its official response, said the audit used “inflated and inaccurate numbers” and warned that the public would be misled.
“The inaccurate numbers of potential separations the OIG identified will create confusion and require significant effort from across the department to explain these inaccuracies,” said Jim H. Crumpacker, Homeland Security’s liaison to the inspector general.
He said the Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments have done “triple line-by-line checking” of their numbers and are still working on a court-approved method for figuring out who falls into which categories.
But Homeland Security did agree with all five recommendations for improvement, including better training of agents and more robust technology systems to track illegal immigrants through the government.