A new report released on Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Inspector General found that the Trump administration had separated thousands of migrant children from their parents in the year leading up to its “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
The report also notes that none of those children were accounted for in the court ruling last year that ordered the administration to reunify separated families, according to Wired.
The report was triggered in part by a court ruling last June as part of a class-action lawsuit, Ms. L v. ICE, which ordered the government to identify and reunite children who had been separated from their parents by [the Department of Homeland Security] and were in [the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s] custody at that time. The order included an exception for parents who were deemed “unfit or present[ed] a danger to the child.” Around the same time, the public outcry over the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy was mounting, adding to the inspector general’s decision to investigate the issue.
ORR provided a count of 2,654 children who were separated from their parents and in federal care last July — a number that fluctuated over time — but it only included children who were removed from families beginning with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy.
According to the report, ORR staffers started informally tracking separations in 2016, enough to notice a spike in the number of separated children being referred to them by DHS in the summer of 2017, nearly a year before the zero-tolerance policy was introduced. The percentage of unaccompanied minors who’d been separated from their parents rose from .3 percent in 2016 to 3.7 percent in August of 2017. This runs counter to President Trump’s claims that President Obama “had the exact same policy.” In addition, these children were, according to an email reviewed by the inspector general, often very young and needed to be placed in specially licensed facilities, which sometimes resulted in a shortfall of available beds.
And yet, the court in Ms. L v. ICE didn’t require the government to count any of these children as qualifying for family reunification, the report says. That means that the estimated thousands of children who were sent to and released from ORR custody before the court case have gone unaccounted for in this national conversation. The report also notes there is no fixed legal definition for what constitutes "separated children," making it too easy for kids to fall through the cracks.
Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, said in response to the OIG report that the agency "generally agrees with OIG's findings" regarding the number of children to whom the court order applies; however, Johnson disputes that ORR bears any responsibility in tracking or reuniting the thousands of children separated prior to the court order.
"Even if ORR were to invest a substantial part of its limited resources in a count of prior DHS separations, the count would not fulfill any current operational needs or enable HHS to provide any form of relief to discharged children," Johnson writes.