Melvin, foreground, and Iris, both from Honduras, were among immigrants who described separation from their children at the border during a news conference in El Paso in June.

Melvin, foreground, and Iris, both from Honduras, were among immigrants who described separation from their children at the border during a news conference in El Paso in June. Matt York/AP

Trump Administration Took No Steps to Plan for Separating Immigrant Families, Audit Finds

Key agencies were not informed of the plan until it was announced publicly, GAO says.

The Trump administration took virtually no steps to prepare for the consequences of separating immigrant parents from their children, according to a new audit, leading to widespread confusion at federal agencies and a chaotic reunification process.

Impacted officials at the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services did not learn of the April “zero tolerance” policy—which required DHS to immediately transfer immigrants entering the United States without legal authority to the Justice Department for prosecution, even if they were traveling with children—until Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the implementing memorandum public, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The departments had no interagency process in place for handling the large increase in separated families, nor did they plan for how they would eventually reunite them. Officials were subsequently left to develop such processes on the fly when a federal court in June ended the separations and ordered children be reunited with their parents.

“According to DHS and HHS officials we interviewed,” GAO said, “the departments did not take specific steps in advance of the April 2018 memo to plan for the separation of parents and children or potential increase in the number of children who would be referred to the [Office of Refugee Resettlement].”

Under existing policy, Homeland Security was required to transfer unaccompanied children to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of detaining them. Families traveling with children, meanwhile, were generally detained by Customs and Border Protection, transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing and then released into the country.

In rare cases prior to the zero tolerance policy, DHS would separate parents from their children if the department suspected a child was in danger or actual parentage was in question. As of November 2016, that occurred for just 0.3 percent of families. Even before Sessions issued the memo, that rate had ticked up to 3.6 percent by August 2017. That led HHS to ask about the trend, but DHS said it had not made any policy changes.

CBP, ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were caught so off guard by the zero tolerance memo that they collectively asked Justice for clarity on the “various approaches to implementing” it.

The agencies attempted to follow existing procedures they had in place for transferring unaccompanied immigrant children, but failed to adapt them properly to note the children's status as separated. HHS eventually boosted coordination calls both internally and with ICE and the department’s shelters began modifying their spaces to accommodate more children. One facility converted a classroom previously used for educating children in custody to add cribs and toys appropriate for children less than five years old. ORR quickly trained employees for handling kids less than 12 years old; in the previous three years, 82 percent of the children the agency cared for were aged 13 to 17.

The lack of preparation led to improvised and inconsistent approaches.

“Staff at one shelter told us there were times when she would be following one process in the morning but a different one in the afternoon,” GAO said. The descriptions matched the impressions from attorneys and lawmakers on the ground while the policy was in affect and in its immediate aftermath.

Homeland Security had no existing infrastructure for noting children they had separated from their parents, the auditors said, and did not track that information. The department attempted to better track who was separated and where the parents were, but HHS often did not receive that information. DHS officials told GAO they provided packets of information on each family when it transferred a child to the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody, but the agency said it rarely received them. ORR added a check box to its database in July to indicate when a child for whom it was taking custody was separated from a parent at the border, but said CBP is still not using it consistently.

When a federal court ordered the Trump administration to reunify the families it had separated, the agencies determined they had “no single database with easily extractable, reliable information” on those cases. That was despite GAO warning both departments since 2015 about the shortfalls in their interagency processes.

The administration eventually determined it maintained custody of 2,654 children eligible for reunification. That did not represent the total number of separated families—the children DHS had separated but for whom HHS had already found another sponsor in the U.S. were not a part of that calculation. The administration had to employ its data scientists to analyze different sets of data to try to connect patterns to identify children and adults in its systems that had been separated, GAO said. For example, HHS tasked 100 employees over four days to review 12,000 case files. Staff at Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters were required to report any known cases of separations. As of Sept. 10, after verifying parentage and conducting background checks, the administration had reunited about 84 percent of children with a parent or other appropriate sponsor. There are 437 children still in HHS custody—19 of whom are between 0 and 4 years old—whose parents are mostly no longer in the country.

The administration encountered problems even after the parents and children were identified, GAO said. In some cases, parents were sent to the wrong facility and in others the children were forced to wait for an “unreasonable amount of time.” In one instance, an HHS employee stayed in a hotel with a child for two nights waiting for the parent’s arrival.

For separated parents no longer in federal government custody, the administration is currently working to contact them with existing information or a call-in number the parents can use. In September, Homeland Security established a plan to contact parents already deported to determine if they wanted to release custody of their child to a relative in the U.S. or if the government should send the child back to the country of origin.

In response to the report, Homeland Security officials said the department was making changes and improving its interagency processes.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said GAO's findings shed light on a "disgraceful chapter in America's history." The report "confirms that senior Trump administration officials kept many officials charged with implementing this policy in the dark, magnifying the harmful effects of this policy even further," Cummings said. "This and other independent investigations show that the Trump Administration failed to take basic steps to ensure proper care for vulnerable children.”