Posted on March 23, 2020

The U.S. Still Can’t Say How Many Families It Separated

Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg, March 22, 2020

Almost two years ago, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California appeared at a community meeting to address what she called the “egregious situation” at the U.S. border with Mexico. Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration and citizenship, said the U.S. government was taking toddlers from migrant parents and sending them “who knows where.”

Last week a government report confirmed that, in a startling number of cases, not even the government knows where.


The Government Accountability Office reviewed documents and interviewed personnel for its report on the ways in which agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Patrol, the Office of Field Operations and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, managed to separate children from parents or guardians and then effectively lose track of the children, the adults or both.

A complaint filed by immigration lawyers with the Department of Homeland Security stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers engaged in “threats, deception and intimidation to coerce multiple separated parents into signing forms relinquishing their rights.” Some parents were deported without their children or the means of locating them.

The 110-page GAO report conveys a horror script in the dutiful language of bureaucracy.

Specifically, GAO examined a nongeneralizable sample of 40 HHS records for children involved in family separations between June 2018 and March 2019 and matched them to Border Patrol apprehensions data for these children. GAO found Border Patrol did not initially record 14 of the 40 children as a member of a family unit (linked to a parent’s record) per Border Patrol policy, and thus did not record their subsequent family separation. GAO found an additional 10 children among the 40 whose family separations were not documented in Border Patrol’s data system as required by CBP policy during this period. Border Patrol officials were unsure of the extent of these problems, and stated that, among other things, data-entry errors may have arisen due to demands on agents as the number of family unit apprehensions increased. Thus, it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated family unit members in its data system. Further, Border Patrol agents inconsistently recorded information about the reasons for and circumstances surrounding family separations on required forms.

Even as of October 2019, the report stated, one of the multiple data systems deployed “does not have the capability — such as by using a family unit number — to link the records of noncitizen parents and children apprehended together and thus cannot determine the total number of adults involved in family separations.”


{snip} From April 19, 2018 to early 2019, Customs and Border Patrol separated “at least” 2,700 children from accompanying adults. According to the GAO report, “CBP may have separated additional children from their parents during this period and not recorded this information in its data systems. As a result, we are reporting approximate, rounded figures on family separations.”

{snip} From 2016 to early 2019, CBP apprehended about 327,000 children “in family units.” Almost three quarters were under age 12; about one third were under age 5.