Watchdog Finds ICE Did Not Give Hundreds of Immigrant Parents a Chance to Reunify With Children Before Deportation

A government watchdog says that ICE deported hundreds of immigrant parents without documenting whether they had chosen to leave their children behind in the U.S.

Immigrant families, mostly from Central American countries, wade through shallow waters after being delivered by smugglers on small inflatable rafts on U.S. soil in Roma, Texas, on March 24. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CN) — During the Trump administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not consistently give immigrant parents the option to bring their children with them when they were deported, according to a report released by a government watchdog Monday. 

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security said it launched a review of ICE’s reunification practices after receiving complaints from immigrant parents who were removed from the U.S. by the Trump administration.

Consistent with the parents’ allegations, the watchdog found that from July 2017 — the time when the government started to increase criminal prosecutions of parents entering the U.S. illegally with their children under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” — until the process became more standardized on July 12, 2018, ICE had deported at least 348 parents who were separated from their children without documenting whether they wanted to leave their kids behind. 

“Although DHS and ICE have claimed that parents removed without their children chose to leave them behind, there was no policy or standard process requiring ICE officers to ascertain, document, or honor parents’ decisions regarding their children,” the OIG wrote in a 28-page report released on Monday. 

The report confirmed that immigrant parents “did not consistently have the opportunity to reunify with their children before removal” before President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018, that halted the government’s practice separating most families apprehended at the border.

Historically, ICE kept undocumented immigrant families together or released them when Customs and Border Protection detained them at the border. But beginning in a 2017 pilot program in El Paso, Texas, the Department of Homeland Security started referring some parents entering the United States illegally with their children for criminal prosecution. 

Since minors can’t be held in criminal custody with their parents, they were often separated and detained by other agencies while family members waited for the resolution of charges. 

In its report, the OIG says that ICE removed some parents from the U.S. without their children despite having evidence that the parents wanted their children to return with them to their home country. 

In addition, the watchdog’s review found that some records documenting parents’ decisions to leave their children in the U.S. were “significantly flawed.” 

“For example, some records reflect that removed parents orally waived reunification prior to removal, but did not include the information ICE provided to the parent before the parent had to make the decision, or whether ICE gave the parent the option to reunify with his or her child,” the report states. 

Along with its findings, the OIG issued two recommendations.

It requested that ICE, before removing parents who have a minor child, obtain and document each parent’s preference related to whether the child should be removed with them or remain in the U.S.

It also recommended that the agency coordinate with other government officials to provide information regarding parents who were already removed without documentation of their preferences. 

“Donald Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the meanest, most shameful chapters in our nation’s immigration history,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who supported the OIG’s investigation, in a statement on Monday. 

“Those who conceived of this travesty will have to live with the memory of their cruelty for the rest of their lives. Sadly, thousands of their victims, including many children, will live with scars of this experience as well,” Durbin added. “The challenge we face now is to establish a fair, sustainable immigration policy which secures our borders and our conscience.”

Documents provided by the OIG on Monday show that ICE concurred with its two recommendations. 

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