The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General said in one of two reports reviewing the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border detention policy that DHS “was not fully prepared to implement” the plan and “struggled to identify, track, and reunify families separated” under the policy.
In the report detailing findings in unannounced inspections of Customs and Border Protection detention facilities holding children, the OIG said CBP appeared to be operating in compliance with the 2015 National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search “with the exception of inconsistent cleanliness of the hold rooms.”
The Texas CBP facilities were visited from June 26 to June 28, “one of a series of inspections” the OIG promised to conduct at CBP facilities.
“In all nine CBP facilities we visited, unaccompanied alien children had access to food and snacks. All five Border Patrol facilities had meals, snacks, juice, milk, and baby formula available. Food available at these stations included frozen burritos, canned food, instant oatmeal, ramen noodles, applesauce, crackers, and granola bars,” the OIG said. “However, we observed expired baby formula at one facility, though no infants were held at that facility at the time of our visit.”
Eight out of nine CBP facilities visited “had either cots or floor mats for unaccompanied alien children,” the report noted, and “all facilities also provided clean bedding, supplying either space blankets (made of Mylar) or cloth blankets for the children.”
In the OIG’s special review of family separation issues, the report said that DHS was “faced with resource limitations and other challenges” as it encouraged asylum-seekers to come to ports of entry and then had to regulate how many could be processed at a time, which the report found “likely resulted in additional illegal border crossings.” DHS also has had trouble reuniting separated families thanks to “limitations with its information technology systems, including a lack of integration between systems” as CBP “held alien children separated under the policy for long periods in facilities intended solely for short-term detention.”
OIG investigators visited CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in and around El Paso and McAllen, Texas, during the last week of July, the report noted. The Inspector General said their office anticipates “undertaking a more in-depth review of some of these issues in future work.”
“Inconsistencies in the information provided to alien parents resulted in some parents not understanding that their children would be separated from them, and made communicating with their children after separation difficult,” the report found.
Absent “exceptional circumstances,” the law allows CBP to hold unaccompanied alien children for up to 72 hours before transferring them to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, but the OIG team “determined that CBP exceeded the 72-hour period in many instances.” During the OIG’s observation week, 42 percent of unaccompanied minors exceeded the 72-hour rule. The Rio Grande Valley, Texas, sector held one child for 25 days. “Evidence indicates that CBP officials may have inadvertently omitted critical information from unaccompanied alien children placement requests submitted to HHS, which could have also contributed to delays,” the report stated. “…One Border Patrol official stated it would have been useful to have an HHS employee on site to assist with the care and placement of unaccompanied alien children.”
On family separation data, the OIG discovered that certain fields filled out on the CBP system are not visible in ICE’s system. On June 23, DHS announced that they and HHS had “a central database” containing location information for separated parents and minors, but “OIG found no evidence that such a database exists.”
“In the course of this review, OIG made several requests to DHS for data relating to alien family separations and reunifications… It took DHS many weeks to provide the requested data, indicating that the Department does not maintain the data in a readily accessible format. Moreover, the data DHS eventually supplied was incomplete and inconsistent, raising questions about its reliability.”
The OIG team “asked six individuals about the information provided to them before or at the time they were separated from their children,” the report continued. “Five of the six said they did not receive any information. The sixth stated that when he left the Border Patrol facility to appear in court for prosecution, a Border Patrol Agent told him that his 5-year-old daughter would still be at the Border Patrol facility when he returned. When he arrived at court, however, he was given a short flyer that explained for the first time that he would be separated from his child. After his court hearing, he was driven back to the same Border Patrol facility, but not taken inside. Instead, he was placed on a bus to be transferred to an ICE detention facility without his daughter.”
OIG investigators spoke with a dozen adults, some in ICE detention and others who had been released, and found half were able to speak with their children while in detention; of those six, two received help from ICE personnel to connect with their separated children and the other four received outside help from family members or legal representatives.
“Some adults expressed hesitation about requesting information from ICE officers. Some adults appeared to be unable to read Spanish or English, while others spoke indigenous dialects. In addition, important information about how to contact separated children was not always available,” the report stated.
The OIG said that Border Patrol agents “do not appear to take measures to ensure that preverbal children separated from their parents can be correctly identified,” including DNA testing, wrist bracelets or fingerprints, and found that “CBP may have been able to avoid separating some families.”
DHS replied to the OIG that the 72-hour holding rule by saying CBP “in all but the rarest cases… has completed all of its duties including processing unaccompanied alien children and making referrals to HHS, as appropriate” and sometimes “performs custodial duties beyond the 72-hour limit due primarily to lack of available and timely placement on the part of HHS, and, in rare cases other extenuating circumstances, such as transportation delays or medical concerns.”
DHS also faulted the report for “no mention of the Department’s significant accomplishments to reunify families” and stressed that “despite the fact that the two Departments’ tracking systems have no direct electronic interface, the government took exhaustive efforts to overcome this challenge and stand up a process to safely reunify families expeditiously in compliance with the June 26, 2018, decision in Ms. L v. ICE.”
The OIG said that “to address DHS’ comment that the draft report did not adequately account for factors that may have caused CBP to detain unaccompanied alien children beyond the 72-hour period generally permitted by federal law, we have included additional factors that we observed during our fieldwork” in the final report.