WASHINGTON - Government investigators said Thursday that thousands more migrant children may have been separated from their families than the Trump administration has acknowledged.
A report from the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office found that family separations were occurring before the spring of last year, when the administration announced its “zero tolerance” policy on the southwest border.
“The total number and current status of all children separated from their parents or guardians … is unknown,” according to the report.
It could be thousands more because family separations were taking place much earlier, during an influx that began in 2017, investigators found.
The administration has identified a little more than 2,700 children who were separated from their families. That figure was released as part of a court case in which a federal judge ordered the families reunited.
Despite “considerable” effort by the department to locate all the children who were placed in its care after immigration authorities separated them from their families, officials were still finding new cases as long as five months after the judge’s order requiring reunifications, the report said.
Investigators raised concerns about the children who have not been identified because they were not covered by Judge Dana Sabraw’s reunification order. That directive did not apply to “an estimated thousands of children whom (immigration authorities) separated during an influx that began in 2017,” the report said. Most of those children would have already been placed with sponsors before the court case.
“There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the court case,” investigators concluded.
Inaccurate and incomplete information in government files may also be hampering efforts to identify more recent cases of family separations.
President Donald Trump rescinded the family separation policy last summer after an outcry. In some cases, toddlers had been separated from their parents and placed into HHS custody.
“Zero tolerance” for border crossers, under which everyone who enters the U.S. illegally faces potential criminal charges, triggered the family separations. Children cannot be kept indefinitely with parents or relatives under federal detention.
The watchdog’s report found ongoing problems keeping track of children, which could affect their well-being. It said “it is not yet clear whether (HHS’s) recent changes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data about separated children, and the lack of detail in information received from (immigration authorities) continues to pose challenges.”
The border continues to be a crucible for the Trump administration, with a partial government shutdown that has dragged on nearly a month over the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall that congressional Democrats are unwilling to provide.
On Thursday, hundreds of mainly Honduran migrants began crossing peacefully into Mexico without the confrontations that marked last fall’s migrant caravans.
People simply showed identification bracelets given to them by Mexican officials and walked into the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo. They crossed over the same border bridge where another caravan clashed with Mexican police in October, when migrants tried to push through closed gates and ranks of riot police, leading authorities to fire pepper spray.
Mexico has promised to allow people through as long as they are orderly.
As in October, there are a lot of children in the latest caravan.
Yolanda Sanchez, 28, said she left Colon, Honduras, with her four children. She carried her youngest, a baby just shy of his first birthday. She is travelling with a cousin, her husband and their four children.
They hope to reach the United States, to escape poverty after her husband lost his job.
“We know that it is going to be difficult, but we just can’t survive anymore” in Honduras, she said.
Previous estimates put the caravan at about 1,800 people, including about 100 from El Salvador. But many of the migrants were still travelling through Guatemala, and it was difficult to say how big the caravan would become.
The border city of Tijuana was saturated by the first caravan in November, testing the patience of the city’s residents, and Mexico’s new government has since agreed to house third-country migrants while their asylum claims are heard in the United States.