WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security was unprepared for the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement policy and the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents, the agency's own watchdog concluded in a report released Tuesday.
The department's Office of Inspector General found that Customs and Border Patrol held hundreds of children in short-term facilities for longer than permitted and provided "inconsistent" or "incorrect" information to their parents. The investigation also found that the department falsely claimed there was a "central database" shared by DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services used to keep track of separated parents and children.
Investigators "found no evidence that such a database exists," John Kelly, the department's acting inspector general, wrote in a memo.
The investigation was demanded by members of Congress from both parties following public outrage over the family separations. The federal government detained nearly 3,000 migrant children after their parents were charged with crimes for illegally entering the country, a policy the Trump administration called "zero tolerance." The findings in the report align with what immigrant advocates and others saw as the Trump administration separated families and then, under court order, attempted to reunify them.
"DHS was not fully prepared to implement the Administration's Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its after-effects," Kelly wrote.
Unless there are "exceptional circumstances," Customs and Border Patrol can generally hold children in custody for no more than 72 hours before transferring them to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates detention centers with a higher standard of care that resemble boarding schools or orphanages.
But during zero tolerance, investigators found that 861 children _ a third of those detained _ were held by CBP for four days or more. One child was held for 12 days in a CBP facility and another was held for 25 days.
At some CBP facilities, including Ursula Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, children were held in areas enclosed by chain-link fencing that critics refer to as "cages." They were intended to hold children for only a short period of time before being transferred to HHS shelters.
DHS claimed in a fact sheet dated June 23 that "there is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes." But investigators found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials involved with the family reunification process were not aware of such a database and knew only of "a manually-compiled spreadsheet maintained by HHS, CBP, and ICE personnel."
That spreadsheet, which DHS called a "matching table," was not created until after June 23, investigators found, and "DHS has since acknowledged to the OIG that there is no 'direct electronic interface' between DHS and HHS tracking systems," according to the report.
The probe also found that parents were not told they would be separated from their children until after it happened, at which point most were given a flyer, in English and Spanish, that explained the situation. One father interviewed by investigators said that before he left a CBP facility to appear in court, an agent had told him that his 5-year-old daughter would still be there when he returned. But when he arrived in court, he was handed the flyer before being put on a bus to an ICE detention facility without his daughter.
Detained parents also had difficulty contacting their children. Of 12 parents interviewed by investigators, only 6 said they were able to speak with their children by phone.
As of last week, 136 children separated from their parents during the zero-tolerance period remained in the custody of HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement, according a weekly updated the administration provides to comply with court order.