Originally Published in The New York Times.
Why can’t the government account for how many children it separated from their parents at the border?
Jan. 17, 2019
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A woman wearing an ankle monitor and her 3-year-old daughter, reunited after four months apart, waited for a bus in Phoenix last July.CreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times
Last summer, a federal judge in San Diego said the Trump administration treated immigrant children detained at the border worse than chattel.
“The unfortunate reality,” wrote Judge Dana Sabraw in ordering a haltto President Trump’s policy of separating the children from their parents, “is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property.”
That was underscored on Thursday when the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services released a reportrevealing that thousands more children than previously disclosed may have been torn from their parents for months before the policy was even announced. The report confirmed that, as the number of families seeking asylum has soared, the true crisis on the border was a humanitarian one that the administration’s actions have made far worse.
The report said department officials who care for immigrant children seized at the border realized by August 2017 that the proportion of children separated from their parents was 10 times greater than had previously been the case, when families were usually broken up only if there were safety concerns for the children. It was not until the following April that the administration announced a zero-tolerance approach, under which families would be pulled apart because all adults crossing the border without authorization would be criminally charged and jailed.
In an accounting that resulted from Judge Sabraw’s order, stemming from a legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the government acknowledged that nearly 3,000 children had been separated from their parents since the policy was announced. But on top of that, the inspector general said, thousands more may not have been counted.
Over all, the total number of children separated at the border is “unknown,” according to the report. Nor was it clear how many of these children had yet to be reunited with their families.
Judge Sabraw was right when he wrote that the government’s responses to the chaos it caused “belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution. This is particularly so in the treatment of migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers and small children.”
The report describes department officials essentially grasping in the dark to come to terms with what had happened. “Because the tracking systems in use at that time were informal and designed for operational purposes,” according to the report, immigration officials were “unable to provide a more precise estimate or specific information about these children’s placements.”
Department officials had to search more than 60 databases “to identify indicators of possible separation, such as an adult and child with the same last name apprehended on the same day at the same location.” Officials also had to review 12,000 case files and contact the department’s shelters to find children who had been separated from their families.
In a report released in October, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found its computers had been unable to track family members who had been separated.
Such dysfunction goes beyond mere incompetence. To have so little regard for the damage done to so many children, for the heartache caused to so many parents, is to indulge in callousness, if not deliberate cruelty. President Trump doesn’t need a wall. He needs a heart.