HOUSTON — The Trump administration likely separated thousands more children from their parents at the southern border than was previously believed, according to a report by government inspectors released Thursday.
The federal government has reported that nearly 3,000 children were forcibly separated from their parents under last year’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy under which nearly all adults entering the country illegally were prosecuted, and any children accompanying them were put into shelters or foster care.
Even before the administration officially unveiled the zero-tolerance policy in the spring of 2018, staff of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the care of children in federal custody, had noted a “sharp increase” in the number of children separated from a parent or guardian, according to the report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
As of December, the department had identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents under the policy and required to be reunified by a federal court order issued in June 2018.
But that number does not represent the full scope of family separations. Thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court, the report said.
Thus, the total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is “unknown,” because of the lack of a coordinated formal tracking system between the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the arm of Health and Human Services that takes in the children, and the Department of Homeland Security, which separated them from their parents.
“This report confirms what we suspected: This cruel family separation practice was way bigger than the administration let on,” said Lee Gelernt, who challenged the policy in court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We will be back in court and ask the judge to order the government to explain these numbers,” he said.
The family separations were a key part of the Trump administration’s effort to deter migrant families from trying to enter the country at the Southwest border, where they have arrived in large numbers, most of them fleeing violence and deep poverty in Central America.
While the policy was framed as a decision to prosecute those who entered the United States illegally, it resulted in thousands of migrant parents spending months in agonized uncertainty, unable to communicate with their children and in many cases not knowing even where the children were.
Infants and toddlers were among the children who were put into foster homes or migrant children shelters, often hundreds or thousands of miles away from where their parents were detained. Under separate policies, the administration also made it difficult for relatives other than the children’s parents to take the children into their own homes.
After a review of internal government tallies, The New York Times found last year that more than 700 migrant children had been separated from their families in the months before the government officially announced the zero-tolerance policy.
On June 26, 2018, a federal judge in San Diego, in response to the ACLU lawsuit, directed the federal government to halt the separations at the border and to reunite children with their parents. President Trump rescinded the policy that same month.
However, the federal inspectors found that separations have continued to occur: As of November, the report found, Health and Human Services had received at least 118 children who had been separated from their families since the court order.