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.
- 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.”
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.”
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.
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 —
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.