The Department of Homeland Security lacked a technology system to efficiently track separated migrant families during the execution of the zero tolerance immigration policy in 2018, a report released Wednesday by the agency’s inspector general found.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) was not able to confirm the total number of families DHS separated under the zero tolerance policy, in which every adult who crossed the border illegally, including those who came with their children, was criminally prosecuted.
The result was a widespread practice of separating families at the border.
“DHS also did not provide adequate guidance to personnel responsible for executing the zero tolerance policy,” the report found.
According to OIG, DHS estimated that border patrol agents separated 3,014 children from their families while the policy was in place.
Yet, OIG investigators were able to identify about 1,400 cases where separations may have occurred but were not documented in the various methods to record and track family separations used by DHS and border patrol officials.
‘Policy designed … to inflict pain’
In response to the OIG report, Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of Families Belong Together, said in a statement that family separation is an “intentional, white nationalist policy designed to inflict the maximum amount of trauma, pain and suffering.”
The Trump administration has said the zero tolerance policy was crafted at a time when migrant border arrivals were skyrocketing. The administration has said the policy was needed to deter an even greater exodus from mostly Central American nations.
The internal DHS watchdog also found Trump administration officials expected to separate 26,000 children in case the zero tolerance policy continued. It also said the agency knew it lacked the technology as early as 2017 to track and reunite children with parents.
“Although DHS spent thousands of hours and more than $1 million in overtime costs, it did not achieve the original goal of deterring ‘catch and release’ through the zero tolerance policy. Instead, thousands of detainees were released into the United States. Moreover, the surge in apprehended families during this time resulted in children being held in CBP facilities beyond the 72-hour legal limit,” the report found.
Report’s five recommendations
OIG made five recommendations to DHS to improve its systems to track and reunify separated families.
Among them: more training so officials at the United States Border Patrol improve “field personnel abilities to track separated migrant family members,” necessary modifications in CBP’s IT system to “limit user error and improve data quality,” and a better coordination between ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations and the Department of Health and Human Services to “outline roles” to create a standard operating process for migrant family reunification.
Officials at DHS and its subagencies had not responded to requests for comment by VOA by Wednesday afternoon.
DHS sent comments to OIG on the draft report and said the agency has been taking measures to improve its processing, tracking and management systems at the border, while continuing to confront the border crisis and “fulfilling its humanitarian and security obligations.”