WASHINGTON – The Trump administration may have separated thousands more migrant children from their families at the southern border than previously reported and the policy began months earlier than announced, according to a watchdog report Thursday.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a “zero tolerance” policy memo for the border in April 2018 and announced it in a speech the next month, which led to a steep increase in migrant children being separated from their parents or guardians when they were apprehended.
President Donald Trump rescinded the policy June 20, 2018, after a public outcry about it. The Department of Health and Human Services initially reported caring for 2,654 children after Trump’s order.
But the department’s inspector general reported Thursday that Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso sector had begun implementing policies that separated families in July 2017.
Under a federal court order, HHS eventually identified 2,737 children that were cared for after Trump’s order.
“However, thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children,” the 24-page report said.
Children who were separated are still being identified months later, the report said. As of Dec. 26, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said 153 separated children remained in custody.
“The total number and current status of all children separated from their parents or guardians by (the Department of Homeland Security) and referred to ORR is unknown,” the report said.
Lee Gelernt, who filed a lawsuit against the separation policy as deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the group would return to court based on the latest revelation.
“This policy was a cruel disaster from the start,” Gelernt said. “This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents.”
The department’s Administration for Children and Families replied to the inspector-general report saying the agency is “committed to the accurate and transparent reporting of data on the programs operated by of Office of Refugee Resettlement.”
“The ‘significant new effort’ undertaken by HHS was complex, fast-moving and resource-intensive,” said the reply from Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for children and families. “To help ensure that all potentially separated children are identified properly, (the agency) has modified its case management process.”
The agency reported to the court on Dec. 12 that 149 children had been re-categorized, so that the total number of children separated was 2,816.
But that figure counts only children subject to litigation, which means only those who had been separated by June 26, 2018. That’s when U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in California ordered the Trump administration to stop separating families and reunite those that had been separated.
In 84 cases, the parent was deported and decided not to have their children returned to them in their home country. In other cases, the government determined that adults lied about being the parents or were determined unfit.
For those who were reunited, hundreds are now going through a process of re-interviewing for asylum. Sabraw found that many of their original asylum interviews were unfairly hampered because they were conducted while the parent and child were separated in detention, and they are being given a second chance.
Contributing: Alan Gomez
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