Immigrants seeking asylum walk at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in August 2019.

Immigrants seeking asylum walk at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in August 2019. Eric Gay / AP file photo

Trump Administration Often Denied Separated Parents Chance to Reunite With Their Kids Prior to Deportation, IG Finds

Inconsistent policy from ICE runs counter to claims from top DHS officials.

The Trump administration often made little effort to determine whether immigrant parents wanted to reunite with their children before facing deportation, according to a new report, which cast doubt on assertions top Homeland Security Department officials made at the time. 

President Trump’s notorious decision in 2018 to separate family units arriving at the border so the parents could be criminally prosecuted—a policy known as “zero tolerance”—led to Immigration and Customs Enforcement deporting hundreds of individuals while their children remained in the United States. DHS and ICE officials consistently stated those parents were all given the choice to take their children with them when they returned to their home countries, but opted to leave them behind. 

A DHS inspector general report released on Monday countered that claim, with investigators finding ICE employees made little effort to determine the parents’ preferences, document their choices or adhere to their decisions if they voiced a preference. The findings differed from statements of former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, former top ICE official Matt Albence and an agency fact sheet that asserted all of the deported parents opted to leave their children in the United States. ICE maintained no standard process or policy to solicit the parents’ preference, the IG found, and rarely documented that preference if one was made. Even when parents made clear they wanted their children with them before they were sent to their home countries, ICE often ignored the request. 

At least 348 parents were removed from the United States without their children and without ICE properly documenting if they had chosen to go alone. ICE’s policy left “significant discretion” to individual offices and employees, the IG found, and only required ICE to allow parents to coordinate their travel with their children. Parents were deported without their kids even in cases when they wrote letters to ICE demanding their children leave with them or when their consulates voiced that preference on their behalf. 

“Under the current directive, an ICE officer might choose to memorialize a parent’s oral request to waive reunification in ICE’s electronic record before removing the parent without his or her child—or choose to never ask the parent about the child at all,” the IG noted. The disconnect was particularly acute in the early months of the zero tolerance policy, when ICE officers “did not typically try to ascertain or honor parents’ wishes with respect to bringing their children or leaving them in the United States.” 

ICE maintained detailed guidance on other matters related to an immigrant’s deportation, such as how to handle their physical property. That made the policy gap with regard to children “particularly notable,” the IG said. 

Eventually, facing a court order and significant public outcry, ICE began boosting its efforts to reunify families before deporting them. Documentation of its efforts was inconsistent, the IG said. In more than 60 cases, ICE said it had parental consent to leave a child behind but it was provided orally or in a signed waiver that had been lost. In more than 80 cases, ICE had a signed form but the information on it was incomplete. Some ICE offices took it upon themselves to document separated parents’ decisions to be removed without their children, even though the offices had not received any such directive from headquarters. 

In response to the report, ICE management made no effort to defend its actions in the period the IG reviewed. Instead, it noted progress it has made since the “zero tolerance” policy was revoked, saying it now tracks family units together to ensure parents have the opportunity to request their children join them before removal. Officials also pointed to President Biden’s executive order from earlier their year creating an interagency initiative to reunify families separated under Trump.