Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Homeland Security and immigration officials have been separating hundreds and hundreds of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S. border, and authorities appear to have been consistently misleading the public about it.

A report in The New York Times on Friday revealed that more than 700 children have been separated from adults who said they were the children’s parents since last October, and more than 100 of those were under the age of 4.

The fact that immigration authorities had been doing this already was known, but the number was thought to be much lower. In early March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class–action lawsuit against the U.S. government for separating immigrant parents from their children while the families sought asylum. As part of that lawsuit, immigration attorneys had identified 429 cases in which parents were separated from children at the border.

According to the Times, “Officials have repeatedly declined to provide data on how many families have been separated, but suggested that the number was relatively low.”

The report is based on data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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It notes:

Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which processes migrants at the border, initially denied that the numbers were so high. But after they were confirmed to The Times by three federal officials who work closely with these cases, a spokesman for the health and human services department on Friday acknowledged in a statement that there were ‘approximately 700.’

It is well–known that the Trump administration—including President Donald Trump personally—had wanted to split up immigrant families at the border to deter undocumented migration to the U.S. Over a year ago, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security proposed separating mothers from their children at the border.

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According to a Reuters report from March 2017, “The policy shift would allow the government to keep parents in custody while they contest deportation or wait for asylum hearings. Children would be put into protective custody with the Department of Health and Human Services, in the ‘least restrictive setting’ until they can be taken into the care of a U.S. relative or state-sponsored guardian.”

At the time, then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly—now Trump’s chief of staff—told CNN, “We have tremendous experience of dealing with unaccompanied minors.” That “experience” appears to mean they know how to rip families apart and then lie about it. Not even members of Congress had been able to get straight answers from the administration about how many children are actually being separated from their parents at the border, the report said.

According to the Times:

Homeland security officials said the agency does not separate families at the border for deterrence purposes. “As required by law, D.H.S. must protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders, and occasionally this results in separating children from an adult they are traveling with if we cannot ascertain the parental relationship, or if we think the child is otherwise in danger,” a spokesman for the agency said in a statement.

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And this is what happens in the process:

Children removed from their families are taken to shelters run by nongovernmental organizations. There, workers seek to identify a relative or guardian in the United States who can take over the child’s care. But if no such adult is available, the children can languish in custody indefinitely. Operators of these facilities say they are often unable to locate the parents of separated children because the children arrive without proper records.

Once a child has entered the shelter system, there is no firm process to determine whether they have been separated from someone who was legitimately their parent, or for reuniting parents and children who had been mistakenly separated, said a Border Patrol official, who was not authorized to discuss the agency’s policies publicly.

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There are cases in which undocumented adult migrants have used other children in an attempt to be released from custody earlier if they’re caught, or for more lenient treatment at the border. But far from being professional, thoughtful, and respectful of human rights, the authorities’ current response seems to have turned into a “horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for a mom,” Women’s Refugee Commission member Michelle Brané told the newspaper.

Read the entire report here.