(CBP photo)

OIG: CBP Separated Many More Families Than Reported

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security has found inconsistencies regarding family separations and their subsequent documentation.

In response to congressional requests following media reports, OIG conducted a review to determine the extent to which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Field Operations (OFO) personnel at CBP ports of entry were separating families seeking asylum, the justifications for such separations, and whether the separations were documented appropriately. 

Shortly after the termination of the “Zero Tolerance” policy on June 20, 2018, the Executive Assistant Commissioner, OFO, Todd Owen, asserted, “We have had seven cases, seven cases of family separations across the entire Southwest Border since May 6th.” 

Despite CBP OFO’s claim it had only separated seven asylum-seeking parents from their children at ports of entry between May 6 and July 9, 2018, OIG has identified at least 60 asylum-seeking families CBP OFO separated at 11 ports of entry between May and June 2018. And more than half of those separations were based solely on the asylum-seeking parents’ prior non-violent immigration violations. Some of the children were as young as five months old, and at least one remained separated as of July 2019.

OIG said that although CBP guidance for family separations at the time was broadly written, separating parents from children based solely on a parent’s prior immigration violation(s) was inconsistent with official DHS public messages about the limited circumstances warranting family separation at ports of entry. 

OIG’s report gives one example of this inconsistency: “On May 21, 2018, OFO separated a 26-year old Guatemalan mother and her four children, aged 12 years, 8 years, 5 years, and 5 months, who were requesting asylum at a port of entry. CBP’s database checks revealed the mother had been apprehended twice by Border Patrol for illegal entry, once in 2009 and again in 2014. She had been deported each time as a result. The CBP officer noted in her file she “was processed for [credible fear] and separated from her children due to having two previous removals from the United States.” In June 2018, we interviewed the mother in an ICE detention center, and she said she would no longer be able to nurse her youngest child due to the length of the separation. On July 10, 2018, the family was released and reunited, after 7 weeks apart.”

On June 27, 2018, after a Federal court injunction, CBP issued guidance with more specific instructions, and OFO separated fewer families in the months that followed. The injunction required CBP and others to stop separating certain alien families in DHS custody, except when the parents are unfit, pose a danger to the children, or voluntarily decline to be detained with their children. 

In the five months following the injunction, OFO separated only seven families. Of those seven, six of the parents had violent criminal histories and one was medically incapacitated. 

Despite these steps to provide clarity regarding the circumstances for separating asylum-seeking families at ports of entry, OIG’s report states that concerns remain about DHS’ ability to accurately identify and address all family separations due to data reliability issues. 

Although CBP’s system for tracking aliens at the ports of entry included a data field that could be used for separated children, CBP officials told OIG that staff did not use the data field consistently. As a result, OFO may have separated more families before June 2018 than those identified in the review. 

OIG is therefore recommending that OFO complete an evaluation of its data dating back to fiscal year 2016 to identify all separated families, and provide DHS OIG with the following data elements for all separated family members: 

  1. alien number; 
  2. family relationship, e.g., mother/father/son/daughter; 
  3. date of birth; 
  4. reason(s) for separation; 
  5. port of entry at which separated; 
  6. date of separation; 
  7. date of reunification, if applicable; and 
  8. for families not reunified, the reasons why they are still separated. 

CBP concurred with the recommendation and reminded OIG of the changes the agency has implemented since 2018. For example, CBP stated it has implemented a new secondary processing system that addresses documentation issues, and released policies to comply with court orders that specify how family units at ports of entry should be handled. CBP stated it has also implemented procedures that aim to improve supervisory and headquarters oversight of family separations. It expects to have fully completed its actions to meet the recommendation by July 31 2020.

OIG’s findings follow two March 2020 reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found failings in DHS record-keeping of family separations and apprehensions. Then, GAO called for CBP to develop and implement additional controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents accurately record family unit separations in data systems. 

In addition, a Department of Health and Human Services OIG report issued in March detailed interagency communication failures and poor internal management decisions which impeded the ability to provide prompt and appropriate care for separated children.

Read the full report at OIG

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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