NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. government may have separated “thousands” more immigrant children than previously known, but inadequate record keeping means the exact number is still unclear, an internal watchdog said Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General says the agency has identified many more children in addition to the 2,737 included in a class action lawsuit challenging family separations. brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year.
President Donald Trump’s administration has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute and jail all illegal cross-border commuters, even those traveling with their children, leading to a wave of separations last year. The policy sparked outrage when it became public, and the backlash led Trump to sign a course overturning the executive order on June 20, 2018.
But the auditor said in a report that before the official announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy, the government had started to increase separations in 2017 for other reasons related to the safety and well-being of people. a child, including the separation of parents with a criminal record or the absence of good documents.
The report also indicates that more than 100 minors, including more than two dozen under the age of five, were separated after the presidential decree.
Katie Waldman, spokeswoman for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the practice of separating apprehended minors from adults to protect children’s interests had been a common practice “for more than a decade”.
Reuters reported in June that from October 2016 to February 2018, before the official “zero tolerance” policy was put in place, nearly 1,800 immigrant families were separated at the US-Mexico border.
These splits, however, were only tracked informally, which prevented the listener from knowing the overall exact number.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), run by HHS and responsible for the care of immigrant children, initially recorded separated minors in an Excel spreadsheet and then in a database program. “However, the use of these tools was not formalized in procedures, and access was limited,” the auditor said.
ORR said in a statement that the agency “has only limited resources” and that counting prior separations from DHS would take it away from its primary focus of caring for children in government custody. It said it has changed its case management process to interview children on admission and flag cases where there are signs of separation.
The government has been ordered to reunite the more than 2,700 families involved in the ACLU lawsuit and regularly report the progress of those reunifications to a California federal district court, including the status of about 400 parents who were deported without their children.
But little is known about the fate of the potentially thousands of children who were released but not covered by the class action lawsuit, the listener said. Legally, there is a limit to how long immigrant children can be detained, and the government is responsible for finding sponsors or adequate care for children who cross the border alone or are separated.
“ORR was unable to provide a more accurate estimate or specific information on the placements of these children,” such as whether they were placed with relatives or in foster care.
Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the ACLU case, said in a statement, “We will be back in court for this latest revelation.”
Congressional Democrats said they have already begun investigating the matter and plan to hold oversight hearings.
THE SEPARATIONS CONTINUE
Separations have also continued since Trump’s June executive order ending “zero tolerance.” At least 118 children were separated between July 1 and November 7, 2018, 82 of whom were under 13 and 27 under 5, according to the report.
Of those, 65 were separated because the parents had criminal histories, but in some cases the agency did not provide details of those histories. Other reasons cited included a parent’s gang affiliation, illness or hospitalization or an adult claiming to be the legal guardian of a child without proof.
Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minor program at Catholic Charities in New York, said his agency represents dozens of children who were separated from their parents after June of last year.
He said there does not appear to be a standard for information sharing between agencies, even months after the government was ordered by a court to reunite many families.
“These kids are constantly asking, ‘Where is my parent?’ “, did he declare.
The auditor expressed concern that the government still does not adequately account for cases of separation.
“It is not yet clear whether recent changes to ORR’s systems and processes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data on separated children,” the report said.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; edited by Susan Thomas