The Slatest

DHS Had No Database to Track Migrant Children Separated From Their Parents, Report Finds

Family members cry while embracing a 6-year-old child.
Family members embrace Leo Jeancarlo de Leon, 6, after he returned home from the United States on Aug. 8. He had been separated from his mother for nearly three months as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy.
John Moore/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security was not prepared to execute the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy toward immigrants, according to a report released Tuesday by the department’s watchdog. Most critically, the DHS did not have a central database to track families separated under the immigration policy, contrary to what it had falsely claimed on June 23.

The zero-tolerance policy, implemented in April, separated more than 2,500 children from their parents. Although a U.S. district court judge ordered their prompt reunification in June, the DHS was, and still is, incredibly slow to do so. The DHS was also criticized for providing inconsistent numbers on how many kids it was holding.

The report explains the inconsistencies and delay.

To begin with, the U.S. does not have a fully integrated national-level system to input data about its immigrants. Agencies responsible for carrying out the zero-tolerance policy, like Customs and Border Protection, Health and Human Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, each have their own system. On June 23, the DHS announced that it had a central database storing the whereabouts of each separated family. However, inspectors “found no evidence such a database exists.” What they instead found was a flawed “manually-compiled spreadsheet” prone to human error.

There was also a lack of communication between each agency. For example, CBP officers had to report their information about immigrants on Microsoft Word documents and email them to HHS, a manual process “vulnerable to human error” and “increasing the risk that a child could become lost in the system, the report said.

The probe also provides harrowing details about the time periods and conditions in which children were kept. The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector exceeded the 72-hour maximum period that a minor can be detained for at least 564 children, while the El Paso sector did so for 297 children. One child was held for a staggering 25 days. These chain-link holding facilities, often lacking beds and showers, are meant for short-term detention.

In most cases, immigrant parents were not told that their children would be separated from them until it was too late. One parent the inspector’s office interviewed was told he would be reunited with his 5-year-old daughter after he appeared in court, only to be handed a flyer later that explained he would in fact be separated from her. Afterward, he was taken away in a bus to a detention facility without his daughter.

No means of linking families together was provided, either—no ID bracelets, fingerprints, or photographs.

According to a Thursday court filing, 136 children still remain separated from their families, supposedly ineligible for reunification.