A new inspector general’s report about the Trump administration’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border begins with damning assessment, and it only gets worse from there.
Here’s the summary (emphases added):
DHS was not fully prepared to implement the Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its after-effects. Faced with resource limitations and other challenges, DHS regulated the number of asylum-seekers entering the country through ports of entry at the same time that it encouraged asylum-seekers to come to the ports. During Zero Tolerance, CBP also held alien children separated from their parents for extended periods in facilities intended solely for short-term detention.
DHS also struggled to identify, track, and reunify families separated under Zero Tolerance due to limitations with its information technology systems, including a lack of integration between systems.
Finally, DHS provided inconsistent information to aliens who arrived with children during Zero Tolerance, which resulted in some parents not understanding that they would be separated from their children, and being unable to communicate with their children after separation.
The report is at once confirmation that the Trump administration proactively elected to implement this policy — contradicting its public pronouncements — and shows that the policy itself was highly premature and poorly carried out. It’s a triple-whammy of an indictment of the administration’s actions, courtesy of an internal review by the administration itself.
And it describes an administration that wasn’t honest about its policy throughout.
At one point in the review, the inspector general describes the policy this way:
The Zero Tolerance Policy, however, fundamentally changed DHS’ approach to immigration enforcement. In early May 2018, DHS determined that the policy would cover alien adults arriving illegally in the United States with minor children. Because minor children cannot be held in criminal custody with an adult, alien adults who entered the United States illegally would have to be separated from any accompanying minor children when the adults were referred for criminal prosecution.
In case you needed a refresher, the White House said it didn’t have a choice but to do this and even said it wasn’t a policy:
- Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
- Trump: “I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That’s their law.”
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “It’s the law, and that’s what the law states.”
The fact that the Trump administration later aborted this policy and that the courts haven’t forced them to reinstitute it already gave the lie to the idea that this wasn’t a policy of choice. (If this is the law, you’d think the courts would enforce the law.) But the inspector general’s report — which, again, comes from the administration — describes the very specific policy decision that included the separation of families. The policy didn’t say, “We are going to separate families,” but it was inherent in it. Homeland Security previously avoided detaining adults arriving with children because it would have to separate the families. This was a clearly elective decision.
Later in the report, the inspector general flatly contradicts yet another claim that the department made in defending the policy. In June, a Homeland Security fact sheet said there was “a central database” of the locations of separated parents and children. That wasn’t true:
However, OIG found no evidence that such a database exists. The OIG team asked several ICE employees, including those involved with DHS’ reunification efforts at ICE Headquarters, if they knew of such a database, and they did not. Two officials suggested that the “central database” referenced in DHS’ announcement is actually a manually-compiled spreadsheet maintained by HHS, CBP, and ICE personnel. According to these officials, DHS calls this spreadsheet a “matching table.”
Then it gets even worse. Turns out that non-database-y supposed “central database” didn’t even exist when the department fact sheet went out:
This matching table, however, was not created until after June 23, suggesting that it is not the “central database” referenced in the Department’s June 23 announcement. Moreover, when the OIG team asked ICE for information that should have been accessible to ICE via the central database (e.g., information on the current location of separated children), ICE did not have ready access to the information. Instead, ICE had to request the information from HHS. DHS has since acknowledged to the OIG that there is no “direct electronic interface” between DHS and HHS tracking systems.
How that claim found its way into a fact sheet and the fact that nobody can explain to what it referred, after all this time, is stunning.
Another key claim that falls apart involves the “72-hour rule.” Once the media raised concerns about images of children in cages, Nielsen deflected. She suggested it wasn’t her department’s issue, because the rule was that after 72 hours they had to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services:
REPORTER: Do you know where they are? Do you know where the girls are? Do you know where the young toddlers are?
NIELSEN: We have children in DHS care both, but as you know, most of the children after 72 hours are transferred to H.H.S. So I don’t know what pictures you’re referencing but I would have to refer you to H.H.S.
REPORTER: We’ve seen images of boys but we just haven’t seen any of the girls, any of the young toddlers and you’re saying they are being well cared for. So how could you make that claim if you don’t know where they are?
NIELSEN: It is not that I don’t know where they are. I’m saying that the vast majority of children are held by Health and Human Services. We transfer them after 72 hours. I don’t know what pictures you’re speaking about. But perhaps they’re —
But the inspector general’s report also disputes this. It said overall about 3 in 10 children were held by Homeland Security longer than 72 hours, and at times that number was as high as 4 in 10:
The OIG team determined that CBP exceeded the 72-hour period in many instances. Data provided by CBP to OIG indicates that, during the week of the OIG’s fieldwork (June 25 to June 29, 2018), 9 out of the 21 unaccompanied alien children (42 percent) who approached the ports of entry visited by OIG were held for more than 72 hours. The data further indicates that 237 out of 855 unaccompanied alien children (28 percent) apprehended by Border Patrol between ports of entry were detained for more than 72 hours at the facilities the OIG team visited.
The inescapable conclusion of it all is that Homeland Security couldn’t even handle a messaging operation, much less the separation and reunification of families. Claims were made with no basis that wound up suggesting not even Nielsen fully appreciated what was taking place.
This whole situation has largely escaped the headlines in recent weeks. This report reinforces that it shouldn’t have.