Confirming the fears of human rights groups, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported on Thursday that thousands more children were separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border by the Trump administration, long before it first publicly unveiled the family separation policy last spring.
“The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” reads the report, and the inspector general found that children were separated over a longer period of time as officials “observed a steep increase in the number of children who had been separated from a parent or guardian” by the Department of Homeland Security starting in July 2017—nearly a year before the administration officially announced its family separation policy in May 2018.
“This policy was a cruel disaster from the start. This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents. We will be back in court over this latest revelation,” said Lee Gelernt, lead attorney for the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights program.
“It is shocking that the Trump administration enacted this policy with no attempt to develop the infrastructure and processes that could track and eventually reunite these children,” said Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights. “We are not talking about commodities. These are kids, and we owe these families—and the American public—the full and accurate count of the number of separated children and their whereabouts today. Even amidst the government shutdown, Congress must make getting concrete answers an absolute and urgent priority.”
Amnesty International previously estimated in October that about 8,000 families had been separated at the border by the Trump administration between 2017 and 2018.
The initial family separations are being characterized as a “trial balloon” prior to the agency’s announcement of the official policy, which sparked nationwide protests as well as international outrage, with UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet condemning Trump for the “unconscionable” human rights violation.
The news provoked renewed outrage among progressives and immigrant rights groups on social media, with at least one journalist suggesting the president and other administration officials should be promptly brought before the U.S. International Court of Justice to be tried for human rights violations.
One journalist on social media called out the Trump administration for repeatedly accusing the press of lying about the family separation policy last summer—a claim which was disproved by the inspector general’s report.
First DHS said I made up family separation, that sources were lying to me and giving fake documents. Then they said it lasted only 45 days under “zero tolerance.” Today, HHS confirmed publicly what our reporting has always shown: None of that pushback was true. https://t.co/UXXwzaBRKe
— Caitlin Dickerson (@itscaitlinhd) January 17, 2019
The report also found gross mismanagement by the Trump administration, revealing that officials used more than 60 databases with information about the children it had taken from their parents over the course of a year. The immigrant rights group Raices joined the government watchdog CREW in December in filing a lawsuit against the administration over those actions, which had a “catastrophic impact on the lives of thousands of immigrants seeking entry to our country, including the permanent separation of children from their families.”
As the inspector general’s report noted, in addition to refusing to admit that it had implemented for the policy the Trump administration vastly under-counted the number of children it had separated, reporting 2,053 were in U.S. custody in June 2018 and then revising the number to 2,668 four months later—a number that still came nowhere close to estimates by Amnesty.
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