- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Trump administration’s 2018 zero-tolerance border policy that led to the separation of families caught the Department of Health and Human Services by surprise, with top leaders only learning about it from the media, an internal audit revealed Thursday.

That left the department woefully unprepared to handle the thousands of children who were separated from their parents and sent to HHS for care and placement with sponsors, the department’s inspector general said.

Department leaders also “disregarded specific, repeated warnings” by lower-level staffers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement who had seen an uptick for months of children who had been knowingly separated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. That left HHS behind the curve when the zero-tolerance policy was formally announced.

“ORR staff believed that the [Unaccompanied Alien Children] Program lacked the bed capacity to accommodate a large increase in separated children and were also concerned about the trauma such a policy would inflict on children,” the audit concluded.

Those in charge of HHS’s response said they didn’t see any difference between children who arrived at the border and then were separated from their parents, and children who arrived without parents — the UACs, who have been a major test for immigration and health officials for most of the last decade.

But the audit said lower-level staffers knew that those who were separated at the border may need to be reunified and there weren’t adequate procedures in place.

That played out over the summer of 2018, as a federal court ordered reunifications and the government scrambled to comply, having to build new tracking tools from the ground up because there was no easy way to connect parents with separated children.

Once again HHS was struggling to get in the loop, with the flurry of court rulings to the Justice and Homeland Security departments sending officials scrambling to give guidance to the contractors who ran dorms where the children were housed.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, said the report was the latest confirmation of “horrific” treatment of undocumented immigrants.

“Not only did the administration act with malice when it instituted its family separation policy, but DHS and HHS managed it so poorly that it led to massive interagency communication failures and poor management decisions,” he said.

Under the zero-tolerance policy, Homeland Security began to refer most adults who illegally crossed the border to the Justice Department for prosecution — even if they came with children. Since there are no family facilities in U.S. Marshals Service custody, the children were separated and turned over to HHS.

More than 2,800 children were potentially separated in the spring and summer of 2018.

Since then, 2,168 children have been reunited with their parents and another 626 who were separated have been discharged under other circumstances, such as to a sponsor here in the U.S. or sent back to Homeland Security custody if they turned 18.

Only one child from the zero-tolerance separations is still separated. The audit said the government is still trying to figure out the parent’s wishes.

Another 1,556 children were later identified as having potentially been separated before zero-tolerance, and the government is trying to contact parents in those cases to figure out what to do, the audit said.

HHS says it now has the ability to track which children are separated from parents at the border and may need eventual reunification, as opposed to traditional UACs who arrive without a parent.

The audit called that a “significant improvement,” but said because it’s a manual process it’s still “vulnerable to error, raising questions about the accuracy of current data on separated children.”

In its reply to the audit, HHS said it “vigorously” advocates for the welfare of the children, but said its hands are tied when it comes to “upstream immigration enforcement policy.”

“In some instances, the Department of Justice (DOJ) or DHS may not communicate with HHS for law enforcement or other legitimate legal or policy reasons,” wrote Lynn A. Johnson, the assistant secretary at HHS’s Children and Families division.

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