Officers at border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico broke policy to separate dozens of illegal immigrant families during the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy in 2018, according to a new inspector general’s audit released Tuesday.
Investigators said they still can’t be sure, two years later, how many families were actually separated because Customs and Border Protection’s data systems are plagued with “data reliability issues” that make it possible some separated families escaped attention.
At the time, CBP’s chief of the Office of Field Operations, which staffs border crossings, said they separated seven families.
In fact, the number was much higher — “at least 60 asylum-seeking families,” according to the inspector general’s review.
And even though agency officials said at the time the separations were made for the child’s safety or because the parent was being prosecuted, the inspector general says in a majority of cases a parent’s prior immigration offenses were the real reason for separations.
“Some of the separated children were as young as 5 months old, and at least one was still separated as of July 2019,” the inspector general found.
The family separations enraged both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, and even drew a critique from first lady Melania Trump.
The vast majority of separations came for families that snuck into the U.S. between official border crossings. Under the zero tolerance policy, thousands of parents were prosecuted for illegal entry and, because there are no facilities for families in the federal criminal justice system, the children were removed from their custody and turned over to the Health Department.
Homeland Security officials at the time had urged migrant families to go to ports of entry to make claims of asylum, saying separations generally wouldn’t happen there unless there were extreme circumstances.
Tuesday’s report says that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Of 5,844 asylum-seeking families, at least 60 were separated. Only 25 of those “appeared to be consistent with CBP policy and public information at the time,” the audit says. Ten of those were prosecutions, 13 were because of the parents’ criminal history, and two were because of cartel involvement.
The 35 other separations broke policy. All but one of those came in the Laredo field office’s area.
Those 35 cases involved 40 children in total. Eight of them were still separated a month and a half later, and at least one case stretched more than 400 days.
In its official response CBP said insisted it acted in the best interests of the children.
“CBP is concerned the [inspector general’s] report implies that CBP personnel separated families without regard for the health, welfare, safety and reunification of inadmissible asylum-seeking applicants for admission, which is incorrect,” said Henry A. Moak Jr., whose title is senior component accountable official at the agency.
Mr. Moak pointed to steps CBP took after a court order shut down the family separations to change its systems to track the issue in the future.
The inspector general recommended CBP go back and re-examine its data to try to identify other separated families that might have been missed because of the agency’s chaotic systems. The agency agreed with that recommendation.