WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security was not fully prepared to enforce the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy or handle its consequences, which included separating parents and children, the department’s inspector general said in a recent report.
Among the unforeseen problems was the need to hold children for extended periods of time in facilities that were intended for short-term use, and struggles to “identify, track, and reunify families” separated under the policy at the border, said the Sept. 27 report.
Immigration advocates cited the report Wednesday in a conference call in which they charged that the administration has failed to explore better ways to handle immigrants.
“Even though the administration knows that there are smart, humane, and effective ways to manage those seeking protection at the border, it refused to implement any of those,” said Leah Chavla, policy adviser for the Women’s Refugee Commission, during the conference call.
A department official conceded Wednesday that the report turned up some problems in the enforcement of the policy, but said those findings merely “illustrate the difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written.”
DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman repeated the department’s complaints that the report improperly mixed immigrants crossing the border between ports of entry, who would be subject to the zero-tolerance policy, and people who show up at a port of entry seeking asylum in the U.S.
Waldman said in a written statement that Customs and Border Protection “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 American communities from nefarious actors and drugs.”
But, her statement said, the 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.”
Under the zero-tolerance policy, announced in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, any immigrant caught crossing the border illegally would be referred for criminal, not civil, prosecution. As a result of the criminal charge, children and parents who were traveling together were separated pending the criminal prosecution.
Before zero-tolerance, adults and children were only separated in limited circumstances, such as if authorities could not determine whether the adult was the child’s parent or legal guardian, or if the adult had a criminal history or outstanding warrant.
Children who have been separated from their parents are supposed to be held for no more than 72 hours by DHS before being turned to over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has facilities to hold children for longer periods of time.
But the inspector general’s report said that during its visits to DHS “enforcement facilities” in McAllen and El Paso, Texas, it found a number of children held longer than 72 hours – and one child was held for 25 days.
Jennifer Podkul, director of Kids in Need of Defense, said during Wednesday’s conference call that the Office of Refugee Resettlement is still holding 254 children, including 113 whose parents have declined reunification so their children can seek asylum here instead of being deported to their home country.
“Of the children who are in ORR custody who have been separated from a parent, there are 16 of them who are under the age of 5,” Podkul said.
The report said a “lack of integration” between information technology systems of the various DHS border enforcement agencies inhibited efforts to reunify parents and children, calling in to question their ability to provide “accurate, complete, reliable data” on family separations and reunifications.
Besides technological limitations, the report said the department “provided inconsistent information” to parents, who may not have understood that they would be separated from their children. Once separated, they may have been unable to communicate with their children.
Podkul said another problem is that parents who have been deported may go into hiding in their home countries, where they have a legitimate fear of retribution.
“They’re internally displaced, they were deported back to their home country, but they do not feel safe there for the same reasons which caused them to flee with their children in the first place,” Podkul said.
After a loud public outcry over the policy, President Donald Trump in June ordered a stop to family separations, although he did not otherwise back off of the zero-tolerance policy. But families who were already separated continued to face difficulty in being reunited.
Jess Morales, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said during the conference call that the Trump administration is using immigrant families for political purposes.
“We know that this isn’t about people crossing the border because immigration rates aren’t going up,” Morales said. “This is about inflicting trauma and punishment on immigrant children and their parents for political reasons.”