The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published the results of a review following claims that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not afford migrant parents the opportunity to bring their children back with them to their home country.
Beginning in July 2017, DHS began referring some parents entering the United States illegally with their children for criminal prosecution. Because minor children could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, Customs and Border Protection separated the parents and children, and transferred the children to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).5 Upon resolution of the parents’ criminal charges, the government transferred the parents to the custody of ICE, while their children typically remained in the custody of ORR.
On June 20, 2018, an Executive Order aimed to end the government’s practice of separating most families apprehended at the border, stating that it was the Administration’s policy to detain migrant families together unless child welfare concerns outweighed maintaining family unity.
The OIG review confirmed that before July 12, 2018, migrant parents did not consistently have the opportunity to reunify with their children before removal. Although DHS and ICE have claimed that parents removed without their children chose to leave them behind, there was no policy or standard process requiring ICE officers to ascertain, document, or honor parents’ decisions regarding their children. As a result, from the time the government began increasing criminal prosecutions in July 2017, ICE removed at least 348 parents separated from their children without documenting that those parents wanted to leave their children in the United States. In fact, OIG found that ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country. In addition, the Inspector General found that some ICE records purportedly documenting migrant parents’ decisions to leave their children in the United States were significantly flawed. For example, some records reflect that removed parents orally waived reunification prior to removal, but did not include the information ICE provided to the parent before the parent had to make the decision, or whether ICE gave the parent the option to reunify with his or her child.
OIG has made two recommendations to ensure ICE documents separated migrant parents’ decisions regarding their minor children upon removal from the United States, and develops a process to share information with government officials to contact parents for whom ICE lacks documentation about reunification preferences.
ICE concurred with both recommendations. The DHS component noted that in October 2020, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operation (ERO) deployed a web-based management application system, and modified the ENFORCE database Alien Removal Module (EARM), to receive flags on cases which U.S. Customs and Border Protection identifies as Family Units. The new application and EARM update allow ICE users to create and manage records for family units. In particular, the new application collects, tracks, and stores data on family units and other members of family groups. Through this new application, ICE is now able to create family unit identification numbers, track family members, designate familial relationships among family members, and annotate a family separation and reunification, which will help ICE ensure that separated parents who are subject to removal are able to make arrangements for their minor child or children (including being removed with them).
In addition, Pursuant to the February 2, 2021, Executive Order 14011, “Establishment of Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families,” ICE representatives from ERO, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor participate on the Family Reunification Task Force. Functions of the task force include “identifying all children who were separated from their families at the United States-Mexico border between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021, in connection with the operation of the “Zero-Tolerance” policy; and “to the greatest extent possible, facilitating and enabling the reunification of each of the identified children with their families….”
The Task Force anticipates issuing an initial progress report in early June 2021, and interim progress reports every 60 days thereafter until it issues a final report when its mission is completed.