WASHINGTON – Federal agencies were caught unaware earlier this year when the Trump administration cracked down on people illegally crossing the border, causing a crisis of thousands of children being separated from their children, according to a new report.
Government Accountability Office investigators found that as of Sept.10, a total of 437 children separated from their parents remain in federal custody. That is out of a total of 2,654 children in federal custody when a federal court judge in California ordered that the families be quickly reunified.
The report said interviews with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services revealed that none was aware in advance of the "zero tolerance" policy announced in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
That meant that the parents of families illegally crossing the border were incarcerated and their children placed in the custody of the HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., of New Jersey, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested the report.
"This disturbing GAO report shows the tragic consequences of carrying out a cruel and misguided policy impacting thousands of families without any preparation or prior notification to the agencies charged with implementing it," Pallone said in a written statement.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General came to similar conclusions regarding the separation of families in a report released in early October.
The latest report makes no recommendations but notes that the GAO previously recommended that DHS and HHS improve their processes for dealing with these children.
The report also represents the latest round of criticism against the president's controversial policy. Under "zero tolerance," most people caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are charged with a criminal violation and sent to immigration detention centers or federal prisons to await deportation hearings. Under previous administrations, most people caught illegally crossing the border were placed in civil proceedings.
By deciding to prosecute parents with criminal violations, the government then had to separate them from their children because federal law and a 1997 court settlement limit the detention of children to no more than 20 days.
Trump's policy was widely condemned, including by members of his own family, and the president signed an executive order June 20 ending the practice. A week later, U.S. District Judge Sabraw in San Diego ruled that the practice may have violated the due process rights of the families and ordered the administration to reunite all 2,654 children with their parents within 30 days.
As of Oct. 16, the government was still detaining 245 children, and Sabraw urged attorneys on both sides to speed up those lingering cases.