Children still in custody and infants held for months: Report details scope of family separation policy

National News

Washington — A new report on the Trump administration’s ill-fated “zero tolerance” policy reveals that children who were separated from their parents in the spring of 2018 are still in U.S. custody and details instances in which infants as young as 4 months old were held by the government for nearly half a year. The report released Friday by the Democratic-led House Oversight Committee provides new insight into the widespread implications, chaotic nature and lingering remnants of the policy. 

Based on documents provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS), the 32-page report sheds new light into the scope of the controversial family separation practice near the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The policy — which Mr. Trump was forced to rescind through executive order last summer and days before a federal judge issued a ruling blocking the government from carrying it out — led to the separation of more than 2,600 migrant children from their parents or legal guardians. 

Litigation, government watchdogs and news reports had previously shown the administration did not have a plan for reuniting the families it separated. Although its height was between May and June of last year, the practice was implemented in late 2017 in the El Paso area through a secret pilot program. Some migrant families continued to be separated after the president’s executive order and the court decision.

But using previously undisclosed information gathered by CBP, ICE and HHS of some of the children who were separated, the congressional report served as a new withering rebuke of the “zero tolerance” policy. The new information is likely to further inflame Democrats and advocates, who’ve been outraged by reports of squalid conditions in detention centers for migrants and Mr. Trump’s threats to orders mass deportations. 

“The Committee’s investigation of the Trump Administration’s child separations has revealed harm inflicted on children beyond what was previously known, has refuted the Administration’s justification for this cruel policy, and has confirmed the ongoing trauma inflicted by these separations,” the report said. 

The government has never claimed to have reunited every child with their family and the new report reveals that indeed there are still separated children in HHS custody, despite the court ruling. 

One 9-year-old Guatemalan boy had been in HHS custody as of May of this year even though he was separated from his father, who was deported, in May 2018. The committee said the records it received do no show that the administration has taken any effort to reunite the father with his young son — who celebrated his ninth birthday in government custody. 

Another boy, a 14-year-old from Guatemala, was still in an HHS-overseen facility in Texas as of May 2019 — about one year since he and father were separated by the government. The father was deported in August 2018 but the committee said it has not received information about whether the administration has tried to reunite the family.

Using the records it obtained, the committee found that 18 infants — children under the age of two — were separated from their parents under “zero tolerance,” and that some were held for as long as half a year. 

One 8-month-old baby from Honduras who was separated from his father in May 2018 spent nearly half his life in U.S. custody and without his parents. According to the report, the father was deported in July 2018, while his baby boy remained in HHS care for nearly six months. “It is unclear whether the child and father have been reunited,” the committee staff said. 

According to the report, separated children were held by HHS for an average of 90 days, compared to the 60-day average for the agency in fiscal year 2018. More than 21 children— including those still government custody — spent more than one year in HHS custody, while five others were housed in an HHS facility for more than a year and a half. 

The committee also found that the administration may have violated provisions in both U.S. law and the longstanding Flores Settlement Agreement that governs the care of migrant children in U.S. custody by keeping minors separated under “zero tolerance” in CBP custody for a prolonged period of time. The report said 241 separated children were in Border Patrol custody for more than the legal limit of three days, with one child spending 10 days in a CBP facility, which is not designed to house children. 

Even when children were reunited with their parents, many of them endured prolonged detention in ICE facilities, which are not supposed to detain families with minors for more than 20 days. Out 365 children who were reunified with their parents at an ICE facility, more than 75 spend between three and four months in detention. About 30 reunified families were held by ICE for more than four months. Some children were transferred to the ICE complex in Port Isabel, Texas — which the administration has said was not built to house minors.

The committee said that about 80% of these families reunified in an ICE facility were released rather than deported. The staff said this raises the question “of what purpose was served by their initial detention and whether it was appropriate.”

Separated children were moved repeatedly as the administration scrambled to transfer them between different HHS facilities and ultimately to reunite them with their parents, the report said. One 16-year-old Guatemalan boy went through five different facilities — from Arizona and Texas, to Virginia and California — while in U.S. custody. His father was deported and it is unclear whether they were reunited. 

The committee also noted that it believed some of the separations were unnecessarily carried out, even under the administration’s rationale that children could not go with their parents, who faced prosecution, to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. According to the report, some parents never even went into the custody of the service and other were there only briefly, with some return backing to CBP custody the same day their children were transferred to HHS.

On one day in June 2018, a Guatemalan father came back to a CBP station in Arizona after being briefly in U.S. Marshals custody only to find out that his 13-year-old son had been transferred to HHS hours before, on the same day. Another 12-year-old girl was transferred by CBP to HHS less than two days before her father returned from U.S. Marshals custody. 

The committee mentioned in its report that its findings are limited as the administration has not provided all the documents regarding the “zero tolerance” policy the panel has requested for months. The staff noted that there may be more findings as they receive more information and records. 

DHS and HHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report.

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