Tech Wasn’t Ready for Family-Separation Policy, Auditors Say

A migrant girl in U.S. government custody holds a card that says, in Spanish, “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you are going,” in this image from Sept. 24, 2019. All told nearly 70,000 migrant kids were held at a total of 170 detention centers, residential shelters and foster programs in 23 states in the past year. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A government watchdog recounted failures with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy on Wednesday, saying the Department of Homeland Security did not have technology it would need to track the families it separated.

The report, dated Monday and made public this morning, says the lack of adequate technology was a major factor in Homeland Security’s inability to keep an accurate count of how many children it took alone into custody.

“DHS did not have the information technology system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the zero tolerance policy,” the report states. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection adopted various ad hoc methods to record and track family separations, but these methods led to widespread errors.”

Under the zero-tolerance policy in effect from early May to late June 2018, the Trump administration attempted to prosecute all adults caught while illegally crossing the southern border. This meant separating children from their parents or guardians as they entered into the country.

But the system Border Patrol field officers used to record information about the families it apprehended did not give them the option to separate adults who were referred for prosecution from the children with whom they arrived, according to the report.

Agents instead had to delete the record of the entire family unit and record each family member as either an adult or unaccompanied child, preventing immigration officers from viewing the tracking number assigned to the family as a whole. The system also did not include a field to record why family members were separated and did not give officers the ability to match people by last name or other identifying factors.

The report says Customs officials knew about the IT deficiencies as early as November 2017, well before the policy took effect, but did not take steps to correct the flaws.

An update in April 2018 added codes for agents to record why family members were separated, but this workaround did not fix the problem as “zero tolerance” was not among the codes. To compensate, agents selected either “criminal history” or “other reasons” and filled out detailed case notes to explain each entry.

The workaround meant that once the zero-tolerance policy ended in June 2018, officials had to comb through all records that included these two codes and read through the case notes to find and bring separated families back together, a process that was burdensome and inaccurate.

Moreover, Border Patrol agents routinely made errors in entering data, including mistakenly recording people who were not related as a family unit or never linking family members in the system at all.

“Data errors were so extensive that a Border Patrol chief expressed embarrassment at the number of inaccuracies documented by field personnel,” the report states.

The Inspector General’s Office found 136 instances in which agents improperly recorded children who arrived at the border with potential family members while the zero-tolerance policy was in place. According to the report, the IT shortcomings cost Border Patrol some $1.2 million in staff overtime.

Representatives for the Department of Homeland Security did not return a request for comment on the report.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chairs the Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said the report underscores the need for Congress to keep the pressure on the administration to answer questions about family separations.

“Career officials made Customs and Border Protection leadership aware of DHS’s inability to track family separations before the policy even went into place and CBP leadership ignored the warnings and still chose to move forward with the family separation policy just a few months later,” Lofgren said. “DHS officials must be held accountable.”

The report recommends the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP work on improvements to IT systems, including ramping up training and information sharing efforts. DHS has agreed with the recommendations, according to the report.

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