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New documents reveal chaos behind Trump's family separation policy

Parents of 545 migrant children "unreachable"
Parents of at least 545 migrant children "unreachable" 08:26

U.S. border authorities received inconsistent guidance on how to split up migrant families during the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy in 2018, with some officials instructing subordinates not to separate children under 5 from their parents and others not outlining any age exceptions, according to previously undisclosed documents obtained by Congress.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in central Texas were told not to separate minors with mental or physical disabilities and those under 5, while officers in El Paso were instructed to leave one parent with children who were 4 or younger or in poor health and did not speak Spanish, according to the documents. A May 2018 memo for border officers in southern California did not include any exceptions to family separations.

The newly disclosed documents were obtained by the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee and included in a 551-page report released Thursday detailing the findings of a nearly two-year-long committee investigation. The documents provide additional evidence about the faulty implementation of the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, which was eventually reversed after judicial intervention and massive public outcry.

"The Committee's report makes clear that [the] Trump Administration was willing to go to extreme lengths, including ripping young children and children with disabilities from the arms of their parents, to stop migrants fleeing violence from seeking protection in the United States," Chairman Jerry Nadler said in a joint statement with Representative Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the subcommittee on immigration.

Thursday's report also expands on previous documentation that career health officials issued several warnings in 2017 about an uptick in transfers of unaccompanied migrant minors who had been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

During the full-scale zero tolerance policy in the spring of 2018, U.S. border officials separated more than 2,800 families, sending parents to detention facilities for adults and transferring their children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tasked with caring for undocumented minors who are classified as unaccompanied. 

However, the Trump administration implemented a pilot program in El Paso for approximately five months in 2017 before expanding the zero tolerance policy, which was designed to deter unauthorized migration, across the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring of 2018. Through the court case that brought an end to large-scale family separations, the government revealed that it separated more than 1,000 families during this initial phase of separations.

In early November of 2017, Commander Jonathan White, a career public health official at HHS, emailed Scott Lloyd, then the head of the U.S. refugee agency, warning him that, "We had a shortage last night of beds for babies."

"Overall, infant placements seem to be climbing over recent weeks, and we think that's due to more separations from mothers by CBP," White wrote, correctly assuming that the uptick in transfers of young unaccompanied minors stemmed from a family separation program his agency was unaware of at the time.

Six days later, White emailed Kevin McAleenan, then the commissioner of CBP, which was carrying out the separations. Providing internal data, White again warned of a "significant increase" in transfers of separated children. 

McAleeenan did not get back to White by email until the next month, telling him then, "You should have seen a change the past 10 days or so." McAleenan also pledged to coordinate "in advance of any future plans."

On June 2, 2018, at the height of the zero tolerance policy, Gregory Davis, the planning and logistics director of the federal program for unaccompanied migrant children, emailed Lloyd, the refugee agency director, telling him that they would be receiving a "bunch of tender age girls." Davis noted concerns about insufficient bed space for these minors, as not all shelters could house "tender age" children. 

"This is caused by the policy decision to separate kids from families as a deterrent," Davis wrote, echoing White's warnings from the year before. 

The documents released by the House Judiciary Committee also include spreadsheets listing hundreds of complaints made to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about family separations before the full implementation of zero tolerance. 

One case centered on a 3-year-old boy and his blind 6-year-old sister who were separated from their mother, who was then detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Arizona. The children were said to have a stepfather who was a U.S. citizen and could serve as their sponsor. A summary of the complaint said the stepfather was "willing and able to care for [redacted's] particular needs as a blind child" and had "provided all necessary information and documentation, including proof of the marriage and power of attorney." 

But the refugee office declined to release them, with an attorney representing the family saying the agency cited a new policy requiring the mother to sign an additional release form.

"She alleges … [that ORR] has not provided a copy of said release so that the stepfather can get his wife's signature," the summary said.

A document shows a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security's civil rights office regarding family separations in 2018.  House Judiciary Committee

Most of the families separated during the full-scale zero tolerance policy were eventually reunited after chaotic court-mandated reunification efforts stemming from poor interagency planning and information sharing. Parents who were deported without their children during this phase were located and some chose to have their children brought back to Central America, while others allowed them to stay in the U.S.

However, advocates are still looking for 545 parents who were separated from their children as part of the more than 1,000 separations that occurred in 2017 and early 2018. If found, the parents could be eligible to be reunited with their children.

Representatives for DHS and the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the U.S. refugee agency, did not immediately respond to requests to comment on Thursday's report.

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