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The U.S. Still Can’t Say How Many Families It Separated

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Almost two years ago, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California appeared at a community meeting to address what she called the “egregious situation” at the U.S. border with Mexico. Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration and citizenship, said the U.S. government was taking toddlers from migrant parents and sending them “who knows where.”

Last week a government report confirmed that, in a startling number of cases, not even the government knows where.

At a time when the nation is scrambling to overcome its inadequate preparation for a pandemic, the report is unlikely to get much attention. But President Donald Trump’s efforts to deter illegal migration and legal asylum-seeking by traumatizing children and parents rank among this administration’s worst moments.

“The decision to move forward and intentionally harm children and parents through family separation amounts to criminal action, and at the very least criminal negligence,” Michelle Brane, an expert on migrants’ rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said over email. “Despite all these findings and the outrage expressed by the public and courts, no government officials have been held accountable for these actions.”

The Government Accountability Office reviewed documents and interviewed personnel for its report on the ways in which agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Patrol, the Office of Field Operations and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, managed to separate children from parents or guardians and then effectively lose track of the children, the adults or both.

A complaint filed by immigration lawyers with the Department of Homeland Security stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers engaged in “threats, deception and intimidation to coerce multiple separated parents into signing forms relinquishing their rights.” Some parents were deported without their children or the means of locating them.

The 110-page GAO report conveys a horror script in the dutiful language of bureaucracy.

Specifically, GAO examined a nongeneralizable sample of 40 HHS records for children involved in family separations between June 2018 and March 2019 and matched them to Border Patrol apprehensions data for these children. GAO found Border Patrol did not initially record 14 of the 40 children as a member of a family unit (linked to a parent’s record) per Border Patrol policy, and thus did not record their subsequent family separation. GAO found an additional 10 children among the 40 whose family separations were not documented in Border Patrol’s data system as required by CBP policy during this period. Border Patrol officials were unsure of the extent of these problems, and stated that, among other things, data-entry errors may have arisen due to demands on agents as the number of family unit apprehensions increased. Thus, it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated family unit members in its data system. Further, Border Patrol agents inconsistently recorded information about the reasons for and circumstances surrounding family separations on required forms.

Even as of October 2019, the report stated, one of the multiple data systems deployed “does not have the capability — such as by using a family unit number — to link the records of noncitizen parents and children apprehended together and thus cannot determine the total number of adults involved in family separations.”

In other words, after an extensive review, the federal government has concluded that it doesn’t even know what it doesn’t know.

Some of the mismanagement and muddled communication to field personnel preceded the Trump administration. And despite an abundance of official mistreatment, there are many dedicated Border Patrol agents and other immigration enforcement personnel trying to do the best they can under awful circumstances. Some migrants and asylum seekers lie to them. Traffickers try to manipulate them. It’s not always easy to discern whether family ties are authentic or whether a child might actually be safer separated from an accompanying adult. Rules are complex and entangled across several agencies.

In April 2018, however, the Trump administration swept such complexities aside in favor of a “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which meant indiscriminately punishing migrants and asylum seekers — children included. Inflicting trauma became policy, with the goal of deterring future asylum seekers and migrants. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” said former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As Abraham Lincoln said in a different but relevant context, people “seldom run unless there be something to run from.” So despite the official cruelty, migrants, mostly from Central America, kept coming. From April 19, 2018 to early 2019, Customs and Border Patrol separated “at least” 2,700 children from accompanying adults. According to the GAO report, “CBP may have separated additional children from their parents during this period and not recorded this information in its data systems. As a result, we are reporting approximate, rounded figures on family separations.”

The “rounded figures” did not approximate older teenagers hardened by a brutal life on the road; most children were young. From 2016 to early 2019, CBP apprehended about 327,000 children “in family units.” Almost three quarters were under age 12; about one third were under age 5.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 practically begged former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to end an “inhumane” policy targeting already highly stressed children. But the policy of intentional brutality continued until a federal court ordered it stopped. Even then, it appears children fell through the gaping holes in accountability that are a trademark of Trumpism.

It’s an astonishing chapter in American history. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, was moved in 2018 to point out the obvious: “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”

Yet the U.S. did. And to this today no one has been held accountable for the kind of heinous crime that the U.S., in its long postwar pre-Trump era of moral influence, used to denounce.

In the course of discussing the family separation policy at that meeting back in 2018, local reports noted that Lofgren had made reference to Nazi Germany. Such comparisons were long taboo in American politics, and for good reason. Even the Trump administration doesn’t merit the association. Nazis, after all, kept records.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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