The Trump administration has made false and contradictory claims in an effort to obscure its failure to plan for and manage a crisis, putting children and families at great risk.
You might think we are talking about its response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, we are referring to the Administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the US–Mexico border.
A new government watchdog report out today suggests that we may never have a full accounting of how many children were or remain separated. This report also warns that long after the zero tolerance policy ended, the Border Patrol may still not be keeping accurate records of families who arrive on the Southwest Border.
As chairs of the committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction on this matter, we have tried every avenue to obtain a full accounting of all child separations. Our efforts have been met with an intentional, unprecedented, and dangerous effort to impede Congressional oversight at every turn.
Earlier this month, acting Secretary Chad Wolf — already the fifth person to run the Department of Homeland Security under President Trump — testified that “the Department has not lost any children” who were taken away from their families by the Border Patrol, a part of DHS.
With any administration, but especially this one, we simply cannot assume officials’ assertions are accurate. Our committees have been trying to obtain the documents that would enable us to determine if acting Secretary Wolf told us the truth. We requested these documents more than a year ago, and today we are still waiting.
DHS has still not provided even a fraction of the documents we need. And much of what DHS has produced has been completely useless for the purposes of Congressional oversight. For example, although the few documents that DHS has produced are clearly not classified and do not invoke questions of executive privilege, hundreds of the pages have been heavily redacted without reason or justification. The only thing that is crystal clear is that there is much the Administration does not want us to know.
As we have continued to seek the documents we need to account for separated children, we and our colleagues have asked Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office to examine the family separations.
As a result of these independent reviews, we now know that DHS and other federal agencies failed to develop even the most basic plans and systems to track children and parents and ensure they could be quickly reunited.
For example, last November, the DHS Inspector General found that “DHS did not have the information technology (IT) system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy.” As a result, the Inspector General “could not validate the total number of separations” or the number of children who had been reunited with their families. And after conducting an in-depth analysis of DHS data, the Inspector General identified more than 1,000 children whose family relationships may not have been accurately recorded in DHS’ faulty databases.
Earlier this month, the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report finding that HHS was not warned by DHS that thousands of children would be separated from their families under the zero tolerance policy — even though HHS was the department that would be required to take care of these children. The HHS Inspector General also found that, “HHS and DHS did not routinely collect and share the information necessary to identify, track, or connect families separated by DHS.”
Today, we are releasing the results of a GAO investigation we requested. GAO found that DHS personnel “have not accurately and consistently recorded family units and separations” — and such record-keeping failures continued even after the zero tolerance policy ended. After reviewing a small sample of cases, GAO found a staggering 60 percent of the family separations examined in the sample were not correctly documented per Border Patrol’s own policy. GAO warned, “it is unclear whether Border Patrol has accurate records of all separated parents and children.”
Once the Trump administration has separated children from their families, DHS becomes responsible not only for the physical custody of each child but also for knowing the most fundamental fact of each child’s life: the family to which each child belongs.
The stunning findings from three separate watchdogs strongly suggest that we do not yet know with certainty even the number of children the Trump administration took away from migrant families — much less whether DHS truly knows the identity of each separated child’s family.
Acting Secretary Wolf should immediately provide our committees all of the documents we have asked for so we can understand the full consequences of the zero tolerance policy. If the acting secretary is sure that no separated children have been lost, there is no excuse for DHS to continue to hide the consequences of its actions.