The Trump administration’s now-infamous memo, issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which directed “zero tolerance” at the border was so drastic and unexpected that Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services had no idea how to handle the change, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.
The report found that the federal agencies responsible for processing and caring for migrants seeking asylum were completely unprepared for the “zero tolerance” memo and its inhuman effects on immigrant families, mostly because no one told them it was coming or how to create a system to separate (and reunite) families at the border. Sessions’ memo made it so every undocumented person suspected of illegally entering or re-entering the country was referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution, causing a dramatic spike in criminal proceedings.
From the report, emphasis mine:
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials we interviewed said the agencies did not plan for the potential increase in the number of children separated from their parent or legal guardian as a result of the Attorney General’s April 2018 “zero tolerance” memo. These officials told GAO that they were unaware of the memo in advance of its public release.
Because of the complete lack of planning, the agencies were forced to scramble to keep up with the influx of suddenly broken-up families, and began classifying separated children as unaccompanied minors (or Unaccompanied Alien Children in official parlance). And this is how children got lost—the report notes that all of this happened because the agencies involved had no proper way of tracking children who were separated from their parents:
Prior to April 2018, DHS and HHS did not have a consistent way to indicate in their data systems children and parents separated at the border. In April and July 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ORR, respectively, updated their databases to allow them to indicate whether a child was separated. However, it is too soon to know the extent to which these changes, if fully implemented, will consistently indicate when children have been separated from their parents, or will help reunify families, if appropriate.
This created a system where it was extremely easy for children to slip through the cracks, like in the case of Helen, a five-year-old who was persuaded to sign away her rights while under the government’s care. Both the government prosecutor and the judge involved in her family members’ cases were reportedly totally unaware she even existed.
Per the GAO report, there were still 437 children in ORR custody “for various reasons, such as ineligibility for reunification,” as of Sept. 10.
The Trump administration has tried to blame its own failings on the immigrants themselves—but that wasn’t enough to convince the GAO. Unfortunately, however, the agency didn’t provide future recommendations to the immigration agencies, like maybe not stripping children from their parents and sending them to separate detention centers, you know, next time.