Why We Will Never Know Exactly How Many Immigrant Families Were Separated

A new report shows the Trump administration was prepared to separate 26,000 children from their parents, despite knowing it couldn't keep track of them.

Last year, the Trump administration ripped apart thousands of immigrant families despite knowing it did not have a tracking system in place that would ensure they could be reunited, according to a new report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

As a result, the public will likely never know how many immigrant children have been separated from their parents.

The Trump administration was prepared to separate more than 26,000 children from their families between May and September 2018 under a zero tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossing, according to the inspector general report released on Wednesday. But in spite of the plan for mass separations ― ultimately blocked in court in June 2018 ― the government didn’t have the technology to track family separations.

The estimate that roughly 3,000 children were taken from their parents between May and June 2018 is undoubtedly lower than the true number.

The Department of Homeland Security failed to accurately record the family relationships of roughly 1,400 children over a year and a half, from October 2017 to February 2019, according to the report.

Immigration officials knew about these technical issues long before the zero tolerance policy was implemented. But they failed to fix them before taking children from their families en masse, making an already traumatic situation for parents and kids all the more chaotic.

“It just confirms that the real policy and attitude of dehumanization of this population,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “I really think a part of this administration’s approach is that we don’t view this population as having human rights.”

DHS and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I really think a part of this administration’s approach is that we don’t view this population as having human rights.”

- Michelle Brané, director, Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission

The Trump administration has admitted that it didn’t have a proper system to track separated families across both DHS and HHS. HHS is responsible for unaccompanied immigrant children, including those taken from their families at the border.

In April, after an internal watchdog report revealed the Trump administration had likely separated thousands more children from their parents than previously known, HHS officials said it could take up to two years to identify them because of the disorganized data. In a court filing, a deputy director at HHS called the process of tracking down these children a “burden” and said the department didn’t have enough staff to take on the project.

During family separation, DHS’s IT system did not have the ability to properly label separated family members or track them after they were split up, according to the inspector general report. As a result, employees came up with various ad hoc methods of tracking families. But they were not standardized across the department and caused widespread confusion once the data reached ICE officers.

Agents were also not properly trained on how to use the existing technology, and mistakes were rampant. Shortly after the zero tolerance policy was implemented, eight children were separately entered into the system despite being from the same family, according to the report. There was also no plan to reunify families post-separation, despite the fact that parents were being deported without their children.

While the stated goal of the zero tolerance policy was to prevent immigrants from being apprehended and released into the U.S. while they awaited legal proceedings ― a process derisively known as “catch-and-release” ― the result was that children were traumatized and detained for record amounts of time.

Brané said the government has still failed to take accountability for its faulty tracking system and the lifelong trauma it has caused these families.

“There was an affirmative decision not to record,” she said. “They continue to drag their feet and act defensive as though this was some sort of natural disaster that happened to them that they didn’t respond to in the best way.”

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