Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the border than were previously known, inspector general reveals in bombshell report

Getty Images/John MooreCentral American asylum seekers wait as US Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
  • Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border than were previously known, a government watchdog announced Thursday.
  • The family separations sparked by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy last spring had previously been pegged at 2,737 children.
  • The inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services said the separations began long before the “zero tolerance” policy and have continued after a June 2018 court order halted them.
  • The Department of Homeland Security told INSIDER in a statement that the report “vindicated” their claims that family separations have long been the norm in certain circumstances, though the agency also said it doubted the inspector general’s office’s “credibility.”

Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border than were previously known, but it’s unclear precisely how many, a federal watchdog announced Thursday.

The family separations sparked by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy last spring were previously pegged at 2,737 children. In June, a federal judge ordered the administration to halt the separations and reunite the families that had been identified.

But according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General, family separations were occurring long before the June court order and continued long after it.

“How many more children were separated is unknown by us and HHS, given the significant challenges HHS faced in identifying separated children,” Ann Maxwell, the assistant inspector general for evaluation and inspections, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

Maxwell said it wasn’t clear why so many children had been separated before the “zero tolerance” policy was implemented in April 2018. But she said HHS has speculated that other Justice Department policies – including an April 2017 memorandum prioritising immigration prosecutions – may have sparked the uptick.

No one knows what happened to thousands of separated children

Read more: A pediatrician explains how migrant children can grow severely ill in Border Patrol custody before anyone notices – and what the agency needs to do about it

Maxwell said it’s impossible to tell exactly how many children were separated because of the lack of data-tracking systems and the difficulties in determining which children were actually separated from their families.

But she added that the proportion of separated children in HHS custody went from 0.3% in late 2016 to 3.6% in the summer of 2017.

HHS estimates that the thousands of children who were separated before the June 2018 court order have already been released – but there is no effort underway to identify who those children were or what happened to them.

The Department of Homeland Security also indicated to HHS that such an effort to identify the children would be “extensive” and would “take resources away from children already in their care,” Maxwell said.

She added that a number of things could have happened to the children. Some may have been released to a sponsor – usually a close relative or acquaintance – but some may have been deported or simply “timed out” of HHS custody, meaning they turned 18 and could leave of their own volition.

DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman questioned the credibility of the HHS inspector general’s office in a statement to INSIDER on Thursday, though she praised the report and said it would hopefully “correct the myriad misconceptions around zero-tolerance and family separation that persist despite the facts.”

“The report vindicates what DHS has long been saying: for more than a decade it was and continues to be standard for apprehended minors to be separated when the adult is not the parent or legal guardian, the child’s safety is at risk or serious criminal activity by the adult,” she said. “For the HHS OIG to claim it was not known that as a result of DHS actively enforced this policy in the same manner for more than a decade children were placed in HHS custody brings casts doubt on the HHS OIG’s credibility on this topic.”

What comes next

As for the more recent family separations, Maxwell said immigration authorities separated 118 children from their parents between July 2018 and November 2018.

She said HHS reported that the most common reason for those separations was the criminal history of the parent, but other reasons have included gang affiliation, hospitalisation, claiming to be a legal guardian without proof, or presenting a fraudulent passport.

The inspector general’s brief on its findings made no recommendations on how the Trump administration should proceed, but it noted that HHS struggled to identify separated children because of the “lack of an existing, integrated data system to track separated families,” and the “complexity of determining which children should be considered separated.”

For instance, some of the original 2,737 separated children covered by the June 2018 court order were still being identified more than five months after the judge ordered them to be identified and reunited.

“It is not yet clear whether recent changes to [the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s] systems and processes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data about separated children, and the lack of detail in information provided from DHS continues to pose challenges,” the brief said.

HHS did not immediately respond to INSIDER’s request for comment.

The ACLU plans to use this bombshell report in their lawsuit against the Trump administration

Immigration advocates and humanitarian groups appeared unsurprised by the news on Thursday – many of them have long suspected that the June 2018 court order undercounted the number of separated children.

Amnesty International had previously estimated that the Trump administration forcibly separated 8,000 families in 2017 and 2018, while other news reports had indicated that the number of families separated before “zero tolerance” took effect was between 700 and 1,800.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the Trump administration over its family separations last spring, told INSIDER in a statement that they would be using this new information from the HHS inspector general in their ongoing court case.

“This policy was a cruel disaster from the start,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents. We will be back in court over this latest revelation.”

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, had also previously assailed the Trump administration for its lack of record-keeping on which migrants in custody were related and sued DHS in October 2018.

RAICES tweeted Thursday that DHS and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had failed “to create records linking immigrant families and failing to establish an adequate agency-wide records management program.”

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