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DHS was not prepared to enforce ‘zero tolerance’ border policy

The Trump Administration was not fully prepared to enforce the president's  “zero-tolerance” immigration policy or handle its consequences, which included separating parents and children, an internal investigation disclosed in a recent report.

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found the agency did not foresee the need to hold children for extended periods in facilities intended for short-term use and struggles to “identify, track, and reunify families” separated under the policy at the border.

The Trump administration's hard-line policy toward asylum seekers and other migrants lead to hundreds of children being separated from family members, prompting protests, White House backtracking and the internal report dug into how the policy overwhelmed federal agents and facilities at the border.

Immigration advocates cited the Sept. 27 report in a conference call last week, and claimed the administration has failed to explore better ways to handle immigrants in custody.

“Even though the administration knows that there are smart, humane, and effective ways to manage those seeking protection at the border, it refused to implement any of those,” said Leah Chavla, policy adviser for the Women’s Refugee Commission.

A department official conceded Wednesday that the report turned up some problems in the policy's enforcement but the bigger problem is the immigration system, itself.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the findings merely “illustrate the difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written.”

Waldman repeated the department’s complaints that the report improperly mixed immigrants crossing the border between ports of entry, who would be subject to the zero-tolerance policy, and people who show up at a port of entry seeking asylum in the United States.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection “has and will continue to accept and process claims of credible fear at the ports of entry in addition to protecting the safety and security American communities from nefarious actors and drugs,” Waldman said in a written statement.

But, her statement said, the administration “will no longer turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and will continue to refer illegal border crossers for prosecution. We are committed to enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that there are consequences for illegal actions.”

Under the zero-tolerance policy, announced in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, any immigrant caught crossing the border illegally would be referred for criminal, not civil, prosecution. As a result of the criminal charge, children and parents who were traveling together were separated pending the criminal prosecution.

Before zero-tolerance, adults and children were only separated in limited circumstances, such as authorities questioning if an accompanying adult was the child’s parent or legal guardian. Adults with a criminal history or outstanding warrant would also be separated from their children.

A previous federal court ruling limited to child separation to 72 hours. After that, Homeland Security agents were required to turn children over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has facilities to hold kids for longer periods of time.

But the inspector general’s report found detentions exceeded that time limit while investigators visited Homeland Security “enforcement facilities” in McAllen and El Paso, Texas. One child was held for 25 days.

Jennifer Podkul, director of Kids in Need of Defense, said during the Oct. 2 conference call that the Office of Refugee Resettlement is still holding 254 children, including 113 whose  parents have declined reunification. Their children can seek asylum here instead of being deported to their home country. The refugee office holds 16 kids under the age of 5.

The report found a “lack of integration” between border enforcement information systems inhibited efforts to reunify parents and children, That failed communication called into question how agencies provide “accurate, complete, reliable data” on family separations and reunifications.

Besides technological limitations, the report stated the department “provided inconsistent information” to parents, who may not have understood they would be separated from their children. Once separated, they may have been unable to communicate with their children.

Another problem is that parents who have been deported may go into hiding in their home countries, where they have a legitimate fear for their safety, Podkul said.

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“They’re internally displaced," Podkul said. "They were deported back to their home country, but they do not feel safe there for the same reasons which caused them to flee with their children in the first place.”

After a public outcry over the policy, President Donald Trump in June ordered a stop to family separations, although he did not otherwise back off of the zero-tolerance policy. But families who were already separated continued to face difficulty in being reunited.

Jess Morales, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said during the call that the Trump administration is using immigrant families for political purposes.

“We know that this isn’t about people crossing the border because immigration rates aren’t going up,” Morales said. “This is about inflicting trauma and punishment on immigrant children and their parents for political reasons.”

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Maria Esquinca/Cronkite News

An inspector general’s report said the Department of Homeland Security was not prepared to enforce the Trump administration’s 'zero-tolerance' policy on border crossers, which let to separation of families among other consequences.


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