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The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) recently found that the Trump administration deported as many as 348 parents that had been separated from their children without ever giving them an opportunity to reunify.
The blistering new report tracks deportations throughout 2017 and 2018 during the prior administration’s Zero Tolerance policy and the pilot project that preceded it. Senior DHS officials testified repeatedly to Congress that every parent received the choice to reunify before deportation—statements that the OIG’s report makes clear were false.
During Zero Tolerance, thousands of families seeking asylum in the United States were separated at the border, with Border Patrol officials at times dragging children from their parents’ arms. Officials then sent parents to be prosecuted. Meanwhile, the children were turned over to the custody of the Office of Resettlement as newly “unaccompanied” minors. After the parent finished any criminal sentence (usually a matter of days), they would be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the deportation process – not released or reunified with their children.
When the nation expressed outrage about these separations, members of the Trump administration repeatedly insisted that no parent had ever been deported without the opportunity to reunite with their child and be deported together.
Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen went so far as to testify before Congress in December 2018 that “Every parent had the choice to bring the child back with them when they were removed.” Similarly, she testified the next year that “[T]here was no parent who has been deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them.”
However, the OIG report found that this was false. Despite repeated claims by Secretary Nielsen and other DHS officials, there was no universal process for asking parents about reunification prior to deportation. A process was only put in place after a court order in June 2018. In total, OIG identified 348 separated parents where there was no evidence of any effort to ask them about reunification.
Even worse, the OIG report found that officials deported parents who had told ICE they wanted to reunify when asked. One case documented by the OIG included a father who sent multiple letters to ICE asking that he be deported along with his son. ICE ignored the letters and he was deported back to his home country alone.
OIG also found records of another 149 parents who had supposedly agreed to be deported without reuniting with their children. But the paperwork was so incomplete—including missing signatures and basic information about the questions asked—that OIG could not conclude that the parents had received a meaningful chance to reunify with their child.
The true scale of these instances may be even higher. The OIG report only analyzed the period before a federal court ordered ICE to reunify parents with their children. However, an oversight complaint filed by the American Immigration Council in 2018 documented multiple instances where ICE officers coerced parents into signing away their right to reunify with their child even after the court order came down.
The OIG report makes two points clear. The horrors of family separation were far worse than the Trump administration was ever willing to admit. And officials’ core defense during the backlash was riddled with holes. As the Biden administration continues the work of its Family Reunification Task Force, it must commit to a full investigation of the harms done under family separation and promise to fully compensate any family subject to the cruel policy.
ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council.