DHS did not have the information technology (IT) system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy, the DHS Office of Inspector General found.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) adopted various ad hoc methods to record and track family separations, but these methods led to widespread errors. CBP officials have been aware of these IT deficiencies since at least November 2017 when U.S. Border Patrol conducted an initiative that mirrored the Zero Tolerance Policy. These conditions persisted because CBP did not address its known IT deficiencies adequately before implementing Zero Tolerance in May 2018. DHS also did not provide adequate guidance to personnel responsible for executing the Zero Tolerance Policy.
Because of these IT deficiencies, OIG could not confirm the total number of families DHS separated during the Zero Tolerance period. DHS estimated that Border Patrol agents separated 3,014 children from their families while the policy was in place. DHS also estimated it had completed 2,155 reunifications in response to a court order, although this effort continued for 7 months beyond the July 2018 deadline for reunifying children with their parents. However, OIG conducted a review of DHS data during the Zero Tolerance period and identified 136 children with potential family relationships who were not accurately recorded by CBP. In a broader analysis of DHS data between the dates of October 1, 2017, to February 14, 2019, we identified an additional 1,233 children with potential family relationships that were not accurately recorded by CBP. Without a reliable account of all family relationships, OIG could not validate the total number of separations, or reunifications.
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.
OIG made five recommendations to DHS to improve its IT systems to support tracking and reunification of separated family units. DHS concurred with the recommendations.