GAO Report: Chaos at DHS, HHS after being blindsided by “Zero Tolerance”

Seal of the United States Department of Homeland Security with the U.S./Mexico border behind it. Image by DHS/Lenny Ghoul.

A Government Accountability Office report released on Wednesday, offers a glimpse into the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy in which all adults suspected of illegally crossing the border were prosecuted. 

Politico reports that the two departments tasked with overseeing the ensuing separation of children from their parents, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, were not told about the new policy in advance. They had no plan in place to deal with the over 2,600 children separated from their parents at the border due to the policy, which went into effect in April and was implemented fully in May.

Officials from the Homeland Security and HHS departments — the two agencies tasked with processing and maintaining custody of separated parents and children — told investigators they took no steps to plan for a spike in family separations because they learned of the new policy only when Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled it out in April.

Politico

The report details that the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not take steps to plan for the increase of children coming to their facilities, because HHS told them not to. 

“ORR officials noted that they considered planning for continued increases in separated children, but HHS leadership advised ORR not to engage in such planning since DHS officials told them that DHS did not have an official policy of separating parents and children.”

GAO Report

Per CNN, there were difficulties in coordinating communications between detained parents and their children once separated.

“DHS and HHS officials told us that they facilitated telephone conversations between parents and their children. However, even though a call had been scheduled, DHS and HHS officials said there were instances when either the parent or the child was unavailable to talk,” the report states. “In addition, ORR shelter staff told us it was difficult contacting (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centers and reaching the detained parents, especially when trying to establish the first contact.”

One refugee resettlement field staff person told the GAO “that ICE personnel monitoring the phone calls between parents and children began terminating calls when they heard her speaking, explaining that the call was supposed to be between the child and the parent only.”

“She said this was problematic because it inhibited her ability to determine if there were questions regarding parentage, parental fitness, or any possible danger to the child. According to ICE officials, they were concerned that ORR staff were consuming too much of the 10 minutes allotted for parents and children to speak and were also going over the allotted time. As a result, there was less time available for other parents to speak with their children in ORR custody,” the report relays.

CNN

The report also reveals that there was no intial method provided for staff to indicate whether an child had been separated from an adult. A “check box” was added to the Border Patrol database two weeks after Session’s memo and HHS updated their database on July 6, per Politico. That HHS update came 10 days after the court order to reunite children and their parents was issued. The report further points out that the Border Patrol was not consistent in flagging children they separated from their parents, even when that functionality was added to the system. 

In spite of changes being made within the system from April to August to better identify children who had been separated from their parents, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was not notified of the changes. The report reads, “ORR officials stated, as of early September 2018, they were unaware that DHS made these systems changes.”

The zero tolerance policy was put on hold in June, after public outrage about it grew. The GAO report came about after Rep. Frank Pallone (D – NJ) requested an audit of the family reunification process, according to Politico. The GAO report mirrors findings of  the DHS Inspector General’s report that was released last month.

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