Dozens of families and children, including one as young as 5 months old, were separated at US ports of entry in 2018 after seeking asylum, despite assurances from senior Homeland Security officials that immigrants who fit their profile wouldn’t be, according to an inspector general’s report obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The report found that 40 children in this group were separated from their parents for at least four weeks, although one didn’t see their family for more than a year. Most of the children separated were 13 years old and younger, according to the unpublished Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report. The separations came during the height of the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy between May and June 2018.
In one instance, the report identifies a 26-year-old Guatemalan woman who appeared at a port of entry and claimed asylum along with her four children, ages 12, 8, 5, and 5 months. Customs and Border Protection officials separated the mother from her children on May 21, 2018, due to two prior deportations from the US. The family was separated for seven weeks. The mother told inspector general investigators that she would no longer be able to nurse her child as a result.
The report is the latest government document to detail myriad issues with the hastily enforced policy and appears to undermine past statements by senior Trump administration officials, including then–DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The document comes more than two years since the spring of 2018, when the Trump administration announced the so-called zero tolerance policy that targeted those who crossed the border without authorization.
At a White House press briefing on June 18, 2018, Nielsen said “DHS is not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry. If an adult enters at a port of entry and claims asylum, they will not face prosecution for illegal entry. They have not committed a crime by coming to the port of entry.”
Nielsen added that DHS would only separate families at the ports if “we cannot determine there is a familial relationship, if the child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian, or if the parent or legal guardian is referred for prosecution.”
The DHS investigators, which examined 12 ports of entry from July 2018 to April 2019, found differently. While 25 families who were separated appeared to follow this rubric, more than half did not.
“Between May and June 2018, Office of Field Operations staff, operating without clear guidance, separated at least 35 asylum-seeking families at ports of entry for reasons other than the children’s welfare or a ‘legal requirement,’ such as criminal warrants,” the report states. “Instead, OFO separated these families based on the parents’ prior immigration violations, such as previously entering the United States without a visa. … These reasons for the separations appeared to be inconsistent with CBP policy and DHS public messages regarding family separations at that time.”
One CBP official had said publicly in July 2018 that there had only been seven separations at the ports of entry during this time period.
CBP guidance at the time said family separations should only occur in rare circumstances, like a legal requirement, a safety or security concern, or an active arrest warrant. But the investigators said that guidance was vague and did not detail additional instructions on when to separate children from their families.
The DHS investigators said CBP officials did not consistently mark all the families separated and because of that, it was unclear how many families had been separated at the port of entry prior to June 2019. After a federal judge required DHS in June 2018 to cease separations absent certain situations, CBP officials issued guidance that led to a significant drop in separated families.
Previous reports by the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office documented issues with the policy.
In November, the inspector general found that DHS officials lacked the technology to track all the immigrant families who were separated at the southern border, so the watchdog could not confirm if there were more than reported and if they had been reunified. The poor reporting mechanisms were known to US Customs and Border Protection officials for months, but went unaddressed during the zero tolerance plan that broke up hundreds of families, the report added.
In March, the Government Accountability Office found that all US agencies involved in separating immigrant families failed to accurately track parents and children, making it difficult for the government to reunite them in some cases. The report looked at the coordination between the DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of separated immigrant children.