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The Trump administration’s questionable data on family separations

Hundreds of migrant children remain in custody after the Trump administration scrambled to reunite separated families under a court-imposed deadline. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

“[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] has reunited 522 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) in their custody who were separated from adults as part of the Zero Tolerance initiative. …

“There is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes.

“As of June 20th HHS has 2,053 separated minors being cared for in HHS funded facilities, and is working with relevant agency partners to foster communications and work towards reuniting every minor and every parent or guardian via well-established reunification processes.”

Fact sheet on family separations from the Department of Homeland Security, June 23, 2018

We’re going back in time to find out whether the Trump administration gave accurate data for family separations and reunifications this summer.

The administration was not prepared for its own policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and produced questionable numbers on separated and reunified families, according to a Sept. 27 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Written in bloodless, technical language, the report nonetheless packs a punch. Inconsistencies and flaws tainted the Trump administration’s data for a period covering at least late June and apparently “many weeks” afterward, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found.

During this same period, Trump administration officials gave the public specific totals for separated minors and reunified families. These official statistics were plastered across the Internet and appeared in newspapers nationwide, on TV news, radio broadcasts and social media — yet the OIG report shows they were inaccurate.

“The OIG team learned that the lack of integration between CBP’s, ICE’s, and HHS’ respective information technology systems hindered efforts to identify, track, and reunify parents and children separated under the Zero Tolerance Policy,” the report says. “As a result, DHS has struggled to provide accurate, complete, reliable data on family separations and reunifications, raising concerns about the accuracy of its reporting.”

Trump decided to end family separations on June 20, after claiming for weeks that “Democratic laws” had forced his hand. We gave these claims Four Pinocchios. Family separations at the high rate seen earlier this year were a direct result of Trump’s policy moves.

Now, let’s dig into the data released after Trump ended family separations. These were snapshots ostensibly tracking the administration’s progress in reunifying families. Were the numbers accurate at the time?

The Facts

As part of Trump’s immigration crackdown, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled out a “zero tolerance” policy on April 6 for anyone caught crossing the southern border without legal authorization. For those with no prior offenses, crossing the border illegally the first time is a misdemeanor. Sessions ordered federal prosecutors along the border to charge as many of these misdemeanors as possible, as well as more serious repeat-entry offenses and other crimes. In addition, DHS in early May began to refer every instance of illegal entry to the Justice Department for prosecution.

The inevitable result was family separations. Minor children can’t be prosecuted with their parents, and a federal consent decree mandates that unaccompanied children be released within 20 days to a relative or child-care facility. So parents were funneled into the criminal justice system and eventual deportation proceedings and their kids were placed in shelters, relatives’ homes or in foster care while their asylum claims worked their way through immigration courts.

After a public outcry, Trump signed a June 20 executive order to end the policy, and the administration began to report how many families were separated and how many had been reunited.

  • DHS reported in a June 23 fact sheet that 522 children who were separated from adults under “zero tolerance” had been reunited. The same fact sheet said 2,053 separated minors were in government-funded facilities as of June 20. The numbers were widely reported, by The Washington Post, the New York Times, Reuters and virtually every other news outlet covering family separations at the time.
  • The government’s process was to house separated children in DHS facilities for the first few days and then transfer them to shelters contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. DHS said in its June 23 fact sheet, “There is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes.”
  • On July 12, DHS reported in a news release that there were 103 children under age 5 covered by a federal court’s reunification order in Ms. L v ICE. Fifty-seven of them had been reunited with their families and 46 were ineligible for various legal reasons, DHS said.

From June 26 to 28, the Office of Inspector General visited facilities run by Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso and McAllen, Tex. These visits were unannounced.

Officials on the border had moved hastily and with inadequate systems to implement Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, the inspector general staff found. The result, according to the OIG report, was confusion and chaos.

We won’t get into all the issues flagged in the report. A key finding that caught our attention was this: “The OIG team also observed that a lack of a fully integrated Federal immigration information technology system made it difficult for DHS to reliably track separated parents and children, raising questions about the Government’s ability to accurately report on separations and subsequent reunifications.”

If that’s what the inspector general’s staff found during site visits from June 26 to 28, how could the numbers in the June 23 fact sheet from DHS be accurate?

After completing their site visits on June 28, the OIG staff continued to seek DHS “data relating to alien family separations and reunifications." The report says OIG received the data after “many weeks” — and that it was inaccurate to boot. “Many weeks” after June 28 puts us past July 12, when DHS issued its news release on the number of reunified children under age 5. Were those numbers accurate?

According to DHS, they were. They pointed to a Sept. 27 court filing showing a breakdown of reunited families. The total of kids under age 5 who were separated is the same in the news release and the court filing. But some of the other numbers breaking down how these 103 cases were handled changed over time during the court proceedings.

Here’s a key passage from the OIG report:

“For example, OIG requested a list of every alien child separated from an adult since April 19, 2018, as well as basic information about each child, including the child’s date of birth; the child’s date of apprehension, separation, and (if applicable) reunification; and the location(s) in which the child was held while in DHS custody. It took DHS many weeks to provide the requested data, indicating that the Department does not maintain the data in a readily accessible format. Moreover, the data DHS eventually supplied was incomplete and inconsistent, raising questions about its reliability.
“For instance, when DHS first provided family separation data from its own information technology systems, the list was missing a number of children OIG had independently identified as having been separated from an adult. When OIG raised this issue with the Department, CBP officials stated that they believed the errors were due to agents in the field manually entering data into the system incorrectly. Additionally, the data provided from DHS’ systems was not always consistent with the data on the matching table that DHS and HHS use to track reunifications. For example, the DHS systems do not contain the date (if any) that each separated child and adult were reunited, while the matching table does.”

That raises a separate issue. The June 23 fact sheet said DHS and HHS had a “central database” to track family separations. The OIG couldn’t find it.

“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.”

The backdrop to all this is the Ms. L court case. We’re not sure what to make of the OIG’s findings in this light. Is the court operating with bad data? The judge overseeing the case has not raised such concerns, and attorneys for the children have not filed any documents challenging the data. A mountain of paper has been filed in the case, which is winding down now.

“We don’t have any way of knowing how accurate the numbers are, so we are relying on them because we have no choice,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney involved in the case. He added, “Overall the lack of good record-keeping has made the reunifications much more difficult and slower than they should have been.”

We asked the OIG whether its findings implicated the accuracy of the DHS figures in its June 23 fact sheet and July 12 news release. The office did not answer this question before our deadline. It did say, in response to another question sent earlier, that it was still not aware of any “central database” as of Sept. 14.

We asked DHS whether its June 23 numbers were accurate at the time. They did not answer directly. Nor did they directly answer whether the claim about the “central database” was false, although a DHS spokeswoman said the department and HHS share data.

“The findings of OIG report illustrate the difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said. DHS submitted a response to the inspector general that was included in the Sept. 27 report. The DHS response takes the inspector general staff to task for writing at some length about concerns that encouraging immigrants to seek admission at overcrowded ports of entry might have compounded the number of illegal crossings.

Waldman added: “The report fails to understand where the Zero Tolerance Policy took effect: in between the ports of entry. DHS and HHS share data regarding unaccompanied children. In order to enable DHS and HHS to implement the Ms. L court’s reunification order, certain system modifications were required to enable the data to be used for that purpose. CBP has and will continue to accept and process claims of credible fear at the ports of entry in addition to protecting the safety and security of American communities from nefarious actors and drugs. This administration will no longer turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and will continue to refer illegal border crossers for prosecution. We are committed to enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that there are consequences for illegal actions.”

One more issue before we get to the Pinocchio Test.

After apprehending children or families at the border, the government must transfer unaccompanied or separated minors within 72 hours to HHS custody for placement in a shelter. The OIG found that at least 861 children were in Border Patrol holding cells for more than 72 hours. That could be a lowball figure, the report added.

“For example, if an unaccompanied alien child was booked in at 8:00 a.m. on June 1 and booked out at 9:00 a.m. on June 4, the unaccompanied alien child was in CBP custody for 73 hours, but would be identified in the data provided as having been in custody for just 3 days,” the report says. One child was in custody for 12 days and another for 25, the OIG report says.

A DHS official said that the department refers all eligible children to HHS within 72 hours but that HHS sometimes doesn’t have room for them at the three-day mark. “When and if CBP performs custodial duties beyond the 72-hour limit, it is due to lack of timely and available placement opportunities within HHS’ custody and care,” the DHS official said. We also sent questions to HHS and did not hear back.

The Ms. L court in late June ordered the government to reunite more than 2,500 children taken from their parents. According to a Sept. 27 court filing, 2,296 children had been reunited and 136 were “proceeding towards reunification or another appropriate discharge.”

The Pinocchio Test

Behind the numbers and the jargon, what we’re really talking about here is people’s lives: Thousands of parents and children fleeing violence in Central America who wound up separated and confused in the United States.

At a bare minimum, the government in this Dickensian scenario should have counted them accurately and kept the public informed with reliable data on reunifications.

The Trump administration offered inaccurate totals on June 23 and perhaps at other points. It claimed to have a “central database” that appears not to exist. Although there is a “matching table,” it came after DHS said it had a database on June 23.

The OIG’s report shows the public was misled this summer on an issue of profound national importance, and so we will once again award Four Pinocchios to the Trump administration.

Update (Oct. 26): The Justice Department disclosed in a court filing Oct. 25 that it had identified an additional 14 children who were separated from their families. This disclosure further calls into question the Trump administration’s statements to the public and the court, and it reinforces our Four Pinocchio ruling.

Four Pinocchios

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Four Pinocchios
“[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] has reunited 522 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) in their custody who were separated from adults as part of the Zero Tolerance initiative. …There is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes….As of June 20th HHS has 2,053 separated minors being cared for in HHS funded facilities.”
in a fact sheet issued by the agency
Saturday, June 23, 2018