NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. government may have separated “thousands” more immigrant children from their parents than previously known but inadequate record-keeping means the exact number is still unclear, an internal watchdog said on Thursday.
The Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said the agency had identified many more children in addition to the 2,737 included as part of a class action lawsuit challenging family separations brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year.
The administration of President Donald Trump implemented a ‘zero tolerance’ policy to criminally prosecute and jail all illegal border crossers even those traveling with their children, leading to a wave of separations last year. The policy sparked outrage when it became public, and the backlash led Trump to sign an executive order reversing course on June 20, 2018.
But the auditor said in a report that prior to the officially announced ‘zero tolerance’ policy, the government began ramping up separations in 2017 for other reasons related to a child’s safety and well-being, including separating parents with criminal records or lack of proper documents.
The report also said more than 100 minors, including more than two dozen under five years old, were separated after the President’s executive order.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the practice of separating apprehended minors from adults to protect the interests of the children has been standard practice “for more than a decade.”
Reuters reported in June that from October 2016 through February 2018, before the official ‘zero tolerance’ policy was in place, nearly 1,800 immigrant families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
These separations, though, were only tracked informally, making it impossible for the auditor to know the exact number overall.