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Trump administration deported migrant parents without reuniting them with children

OIG audit undermines claims that parents chose to leave children behind in U.S.

At the height of the disastrous and controversial "zero tolerance" policy, Trump administration officials took little care to determine whether immigrants parents wanted to be reunited with their children before deportation, and instead relied on a haphazard, inconsistent process that lacked "clear guidance," a federal watchdog said.

In some cases, federal agents removed the parents without their kids intentionally — findings which undermine statements from former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who told Congress that parents chose to leave their children in the U.S.

In a 25-page report, the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General said that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported at least 348 parents separated from their children without documenting whether parents wanted to leave their children in the U.S. The agency's policy left "significant discretion" to individual field offices, the OIG said, and only required ICE to allow parents to coordinate their travel with children. In some cases, parents were even removed without their children after they wrote letters asking to be deported with their kids and consulate offices attempted to help.

"In fact, ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country," the OIG wrote. "In addition, we found that some ICE records purportedly documenting migrant parents’ decisions to leave their children in the United States were significantly flawed." 

Beginning in July and November 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sought to prosecute the misdemeanor charge of improper entry, including parents who crossed into the U.S. with their children. The agency detained the parents, and separated the children, re-classifying them as unaccompanied minors. During the pilot program, which came to be known as the El Paso Initiative, the agency separated nearly 280 families.

However, despite signs that CBP was fundamentally unable to keep track of the children after they were separated, and warnings from social workers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement that children would suffer under the policy, the Trump administration forged ahead, launching the so-called "zero tolerance" policy in 2018, expanding the El Paso Initiative across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. 

In May 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined the policy, saying simply: "If you cross the border unlawfully—then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we'll prosecute you. If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law," he said.

Even as the policy moved forward, many parents were not only targeted above other entrants but while they were charged with a misdemeanor they often served little to no jail-time. Despite this, their children were whisked away to facilities across the U.S. Later uncovered memos show that officials in the Justice Department and DHS hoped that the policy would have "a substantial deterrent effect" on future migration. 

Within weeks, the administration faced a massive backlash against the "zero tolerance" policy. Sessions sought to blame court decisions that guide how ICE can deal with migrant children, while Nielsen took a different tact, writing on Twitter that DHS did not have a policy that separated families—despite the fact that the family separations were a consequence of the administration's choice to prosecute asylum-seeking families for illegal entry. In June 2018, the Trump administration backtracked, and a federal judge ordered the government to stop separating families as part of a class-action lawsuit launched by the American Civil Liberties Union. From the pilot program in 2017 to mid-2018, as many as 5,500 children were separated from their parents. 

Arizona case moves to lawsuit

This included Eliot, and his 11-year-old son Héctor, who were forcibly separated in Arizona in 2018. 

Eliot's journey with Héctor is described in court documents as part of a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year. In the lawsuit, Eliot said he fled from Guatemala after his family was threatened, and he attempted to enter the U.S. with his son near Lukeville, Arizona on May 19, 2018. They taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol, were transported to the Border Patrol station in Ajo, and detained in a cell with 30 other adults and children. The next day, a Border Patrol agent told the parents that the children would be sent to a "different location away from their parents." 

"Rumors swept through the room that the children were being taken away forever. Eliot felt scared that he could be deported without Héctor. Other families in the cell began to cry and panic," the lawsuit read. 

As Eliot describes it, the agents took his son's backpack, stuffed with clothes and shoes, and told him to place Héctor's belongings into a plastic bag. Outside, the children were placed in one bus, and the adults in another. 

"Eliot hugged his son tightly as they both cried. Héctor did not want to let his father go. He told Eliot he feared that they would never be reunited. Eliot attempted to comfort Héctor by telling him that he would never leave him behind," the lawsuit read. "Then Eliot had no choice but to let Héctor board the bus along with the other crying children." 

In a Tucson courtroom, Eliot was told that that if he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor improper entry, he would be sentenced to time served. He then "begged the judge to be reunited with his son." Instead, Eliot was sent to ICE's Florence Staging Facility in Florence, Arizona and then transported to a similar facility in Lumpkin, Georgia. Meanwhile, his son was sent to a Southwest Key facility in Mesa, Arizona. 

Eliot was later transported to Texas. After 61 days, he was reunited with his son. 

As the lawsuit read, "Eliot and Héctor saw each other at the same moment. They ran to each other, embraced, and then both started crying. It had been two months since they had seen each other." 

"Eliot felt tremendous relief, but also extreme sadness about what the separation had done to his son," court documents showed. "Héctor told his father that he thought he was never going to come for him, tinging their reunion with sorrow as Eliot understood the anguish his son had gone through." 

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ICE removed some parents intentionally

The OIG said that some records showed that parents verbally "waived reunification" before their deportation, however, the documents did not show what ICE told parents before they made that decision, or "whether ICE gave the parent the option to reunify with his or her child." Other records showed that in some cases parents told ICE officers they wanted their children to come home with them "but ICE nevertheless removed the parents without reunifying them, leaving their children in the United States," the OIG said. 

"Therefore, at least some of ICE’s removals of parents without their children were intentional, and not just inadvertent incidents resulting from human error or inaccurate records," the OIG wrote.

Following the end of "zero tolerance" DHS and ICE leaders "repeatedly maintained that ICE policy provided migrant parents with the opportunity to bring their children with them upon removal to their home country," the OIG noted. "Therefore, per DHS and ICE officials, any instance of a child left behind was the result of a parent’s affirmative decision not to have the child accompany them, which would be documented in ICE records." 

During a congressional hearing about the child separations, Nielson told Congress in December 2018 "Every parent had the choice to bring the child back with them when they were removed. The ones who did not bring the children with them made the choice not to have the child accompany them." She reiterated this idea in March 2019, telling Congressional leaders, "No parent who has been deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them." 

Nielsen also told Congress that ICE officials could "go into the file and see the records that are there," reviewing both paper records and electronic files, but the OIG found that in these cases, "ICE has no records demonstrating that they wanted to leave their children in the United States.

Despite these statements, however, ICE did not have "clear guidance" outlining the procedures to "ascertain, document, or honor parents’ decisions as to whether to leave their children in the United States when they were removed," the OIG wrote. While this shifted over the summer as family separations continued, ICE's policies remained inconsistent across the various field offices.

Similarly, Matthew Albence, the head of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, told Congress in July 2018 that "longstanding ICE policy dictates how reunification may occur," and he said that his agency maintained a system that could allowed officers to make a note to show that parents declined reunification. 

“Under the current directive, an ICE officer might choose to memorialize a parent’s oral request to waive reunification in ICE’s electronic record before removing the parent without his or her child—or choose to never ask the parent about the child at all," the OIG wrote. 

This disconnect often occurred in early months of the zero tolerance policy, when ICE officers "did not typically try to ascertain or honor parents’ wishes with respect to bringing their children or leaving them in the United States." 

"The timing of the parents’ removal played a major part in whether they had the opportunity to elect or waive reunification,"  the OIG wrote. 

This was despite other stricter guidelines on how to handle personal property, which made the lax structure for dealing with children and their parents "particularly notable," the OIG said. 

During the family separations, ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection argued in part that this policy was necessary because some parents had a criminal history beyond illegal entries, while other people who presented themselves as parents were not related to the children. However, the OIG report excised these potential cases, ignoring 51 parents who had a criminal history, and 26 people who may have "made a false claim of parentage." "We did not independently confirm either these detainees’ criminal history or their purportedly false claims of parentage," the OIG said. 

ICE shifted its efforts as part of a federal class-action lawsuit, known as Ms.  L v.  ICE, which limited the deportations and required the agency to use a form to "memorialize the decisions." Despite the lawsuit, documentation remained inconsistent. In 63 cases, federal records show that parents either orally waived reunification, or signed a waiver that ICE cannot find. 

In 86 cases, ICE gave the OIG copies of a signed form, but the information was incomplete. 

ICE concurred with the OIG's findings, and responded by highlighting updates to its own databases to "flag" family units, including a system to create and track family members to "help ICE ensure that separated parents who are subject to removal are able to make arrangements for their minor child or children." ICE also noted its work to reunify families that were previously deported, as part of a task force created by the Biden administration in March. 

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Two women file paperwork in Nogales, Sonora in June 2018.

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