The Department of Homeland Security did not properly plan for, or implement, President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy that led to more than 2,500 family separations along the border this summer, according to a report released Tuesday.
The department detained hundreds of minors longer than legally allowed, gave inconsistent and incomplete information to their parents, and could not provide basic data on the separated families, according to the report by the DHS Office of Inspector General.
Since Congress has not ordered any kind of investigation into the controversial practice that plagued the Trump administration throughout the summer, the Inspector General report marks the first government attempt to understand what went wrong with the ill-fated, now-reversed family separation policy.
“DHS was not fully prepared to implement the Zero Tolerance Policy, or to deal with certain effects of the policy following implementation,” write the report’s authors.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the report illustrates the "difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written." But she said the administration will continue referring all illegal border crossers for prosecution — the central component of the "zero tolerance" policy — and that the department remains committed to ensuring that "there are consequences for illegal actions."
According to the Inspector General report, maintaining that immigration enforcement posture will require widespread changes across the department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy on April 6. Previously, most undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border were placed into civil deportation proceedings, often released into the U.S. and ordered to appear before an immigration judge. Under the new policy, all of them would be referred for criminal prosecution and most would be detained until their court hearing.
At the same time, federal law and a 1997 court settlement limits the amount of time children can be held in detention centers. That combination led the government to begin separating families at a far higher rate than had been done before.
The report identified problems from the start. Minors are supposed to be held in Customs and Border Patrol facilities for no more than 72 hours before they are transferred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. But in at least 821 cases, they were held for longer periods of time, including one minor held for 25 days.
In the department's Rio Grande Valley sector, the busiest along the southwest border, 44 percent of children were held past the 72-hour limit. In the El Paso sector, 40 percent of children were held past the limit.
"The number of children held for more than 72 hours may be even higher than these figures," read the report, citing limitations in the data received from CBP officials.
The difficulties only continued as parents were separated and placed into criminal deportation proceedings.
The report found that agents misled parents about the fate, and the location, of their children. The report describes the plight of one father detained at a Border Patrol facility who was taken to court and told that his 5-year-old daughter would be waiting for him when he returned. When he arrived in court, he was given a flyer explaining that he would be separated. He was not returned to the Border Patrol facility.
"Instead, he was placed on a bus to be transferred to an (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facility without his daughter," the report read.
Once separated, the report found that families had many difficulties trying to communicate with each other. In some facilities, parents had no idea that they could make a phone call to find their child. In Port Isabel, staff placed flyers showing a number to call HHS to locate their child. But the flyer “failed to indicate that detainees must dial a unique code assigned to each individual by the detention facility before dialing the HHS toll-free number.”
Simply keeping track of which parents belonged to which children was also a challenge because of the different computer systems used by the different federal agencies who handled parents and children throughout the family separation process.
Health and Human Services systems can sync up with some Border Patrol databases, but not with CBP's Office of Field Operations systems. The administration announced on June 23 that Homeland Security and Health and Human Services had created a "central database" containing location information for both parents and children.
"However, OIG found no evidence that such a database exists," the report read. "DHS has since acknowledged to the OIG that there is no 'direct electronic interface' between DHS and HHS tracking system."
Given that lack of accounting, the report faulted Border Patrol for not outfitting children too young to speak with wrist bracelets or any other identifying item to ensure they were properly accounted for throughout the process.
The report points out that the government “may have been able to avoid separating some families” if they had made some minor logistical changes. A USA TODAY review of criminal prosecutions under the "zero tolerance" policy showed that most parents were sentenced to whatever time they have already spent in the government’s custody and a $10 court fee.
The Inspector General report came to the same conclusion, and found that most parents were then taken to ICE prisons instead of being returned to the CBP facility they were being housed in with their child. The reason?
"According to a senior official who was involved with this decision, CBP made this change in order to avoid doing the additional paperwork required to readmit the adults," the report found.
The government is in the final stages of reuniting more than 2,500 children who were separated from their parents. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the reunifications on June 26, has been overseeing the case. Some parents will get a second chance to apply for asylum, hundreds have already been deported, and lawyers on both sides expect the process to be completed in the coming weeks.