Records obtained by American Oversight from the Department of Homeland Security related to the Trump administration’s family-separation policy provide further evidence of the lack of adequate planning with regard to reuniting children with family members.
The documents — which American Oversight has added to its extensive timeline of records related to the “zero tolerance” initiative that formalized the separation of migrant children from their families — highlight examples of problems with data collection and detention capacity, issues that DHS inspector general investigations have also confirmed.
Records indicate that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was not prepared to handle the impacts of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which mandated the criminal prosecution of all migrants crossing the border illegally.
On May 10, 2018, about one month after the policy was officially announced, CBP’s acting chief of law enforcement operations Brian Hastings wrote that OMB officials “seem to finally realize that DOJ (Marshal’s detention space) ERO (Detention Space) and HHS (UAC space) do not have the capacity [and] are not prepared” for the Department of Justice’s stated goal of 100 percent prosecutions.
On May 19, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told Manny Padilla, chief patrol agent of the Rio Grande Valley Sector, that he was “very concerned about the back up in custody” and asked for Padilla’s “direct take from the ground.” Padilla forwarded McAleenan an email explaining that “the [subjects] in custody are steadily backing up due to a number of factors,” including “multiple chickenpox and scabies outbreaks,” along with “numerous hospitalizations,” “facility issues,” and slowdowns from the policy’s administrative toll. “The zero tolerance prosecution initiative is having the greatest impact to our ability to process aliens quickly,” Padilla wrote.
According to other emails circulated that day, “the average time in custody has increased,” and the Yuma, Tucson, and Rio Grande Valley sectors had “verbally reported that ERO [ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations] has told them that they are not picking up as many as normal because they are out of bed space.”
The records also highlight the federal government’s lack of proper planning to track data on separated families, hindering their ability to reunify families later on. More than 5,500 children were separated from their families as a result of the policy, and as of October 2022, an estimated 700 children were still waiting for reunification.
On March 12, 2018, the month before the zero-tolerance policy officially went into effect, DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf received an email stating that southwest border field offices “do not track or collect specific information on the release/separation of families” and that at the time family separation was “so infrequent that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has no records to support the few numbers of family units that have been separated due to officer discretion.” The email also stated that “the approximate number of family unit separations” in the last fiscal year according to ERO was “less than 10 cases at most.”
In a response, Wolf wrote that he was seeking “guidance on what [Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen] can and cannot say publically [sic]” given a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU against ICE. He said that he needed “information / statistics on the number of [family units] separated, either by the Border Patrol or ICE,” because there was a “narrative that we are separating [family units] in large numbers.”
McAleenan and acting chief of Border Patrol Carla Provost were added onto the thread and received an email on March 13 reporting that “CBP does not separate [family units] as a course of any prosecution initiative nor as a general practice,” and so the data was “not readily available.” Provost forwarded the message to Hastings, who responded that while the agency does have data on “the separation of family units under a specific definition,” that would “not answer” the question of the total number of family units separated “because after a family unit leaves our custody to ERO, ERO may separate them and we will not be able to see that.”
In June 2018, public outcry led the administration to officially end the family-separation policy. Emails exchanged among top officials the next month point to continued issues with the collection of data on the exact count of children separated from families.
“There seems to be a fundamental lack of communication up and down the HHS chain,” ERO Executive Associate Director Matthew Albence wrote to top officials on July 5. In the email thread, officials expressed concern over discrepancies in the number of children separated from their parents counted by CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services. An email from a CBP staffer clarified that the HHS count included children admitted into care as early as August 2017, and the CBP count only included children separated under the zero tolerance policy from May 5 to June 20. On July 11, in response to an email breaking down HHS data on 328 unaccompanied immigrant children, McAleenan wrote, “HHS methodology is backwards.”
American Oversight’s family separation timeline contains information from thousands of pages of records documenting the Trump administration’s communications. American Oversight also has numerous other investigations into the Trump administration and immigration policy.
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