The attorney general’s April 2018 “zero tolerance” memo on prosecuting immigration offenses prompted federal officials to increase the rate of family separations, placing considerably more children in custody. In June, a federal judge ordered reunifications.
In response to the court order, the government identified 2,654 children for potential reunification. As of Sept. 10, 437 remained in custody.
The Government Accountability Office examined the government’s planning and reunification efforts. Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials told GAO they had no advance notice of the release of the “zero tolerance” memo and did not plan for the potential increase in the number of children separated from their parent or legal guardian as a result.
The memo directed Department of Justice prosecutors to accept for criminal prosecution all referrals from DHS of offenses related to improper entry into the United States, to the extent practicable. As a result, parents were placed in criminal detention, and their children were placed in the custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). DHS and ORR treated separated children as unaccompanied alien children (UAC)—those under 18 years old with no lawful immigration status and no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.
Prior to April 2018, DHS and HHS did not have a consistent way to indicate in their data systems children and parents separated at the border. In April and July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ORR, respectively, updated their databases to allow them to indicate whether a child was separated. However, GAO found it is too soon to know the extent to which these changes, if fully implemented, will consistently indicate when children have been separated from their parents, or will help reunify families, if appropriate.
GAO was asked to examine processes for tracking and reunifying separated families. Their report discusses DHS and HHS (1) planning efforts related to the Attorney General’s April 2018 memo, (2) systems for indicating children were separated from parents, and (3) actions to reunify families in response to the June court order. GAO reviewed agency policies and procedures, filings in the relevant court case as of Aug. 23, and interviewed DHS and HHS officials. GAO also visited four ORR shelters in July to interview staff responsible for the separated children.