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Women’s Refugee Commission Responds to the Department of Homeland Security’s Report Regarding Implementation of the Zero-Tolerance Policy and Family Separation

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) expressed grave concerns about the findings of a new report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG) entitled, “Special Review – Initial Observations Regarding Family Separation Issues Under the Zero Tolerance Policy.”

The report provides observations from site visits to Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in El Paso and McAllen in June 2018, as well as interviews with separated parents. The report finds that DHS was inadequately prepared to implement the Zero-Tolerance Policy and manage its impact.

The report details CBP’s use of a metering system at ports of entry (POE) due to limited holding capacity, forcing asylum seekers to wait across the border until authorities were able to process them or to seek protection by crossing between ports of entry. This was despite the fact that administration officials repeatedly insisted that asylum seekers seek protection only at ports of entry.

It also highlights the lack of integrated data systems that ultimately made it difficult for authorities to track and reunite families, and that separated parents often received little or no information on the separation or how to contact their children.

WRC has long documented the problems with policies governing family separation at the border and has for years recommended mechanisms to track separation and facilitate contact and reunification. The DHS-OIG’s report documented hundreds of unaccompanied separated children being held in CBP detention centers, including one child who was in CBP custody for 25 days. OIG notes that Border Patrol had no meaningful way to process pre-verbal children. Notably, OIG observed that in the McAllen area, CBP could have potentially prevented separation by reuniting some parents with children immediately after their parents’ criminal proceedings. Instead, CBP chose to transfer them to ICE, continuing their separation, “in order to avoid doing the additional paperwork.”

Katharina Obser, senior policy advisor for the Migrant Rights and Justice program at WRC, made the following statement:

“We are deeply alarmed by the findings of the DHS-OIG’s report, which only confirms the concerns we have had about family separation under the Zero-Tolerance Policy. That the administration clearly had no meaningful infrastructure in place to track or follow up on separations or would prolong separations in order to bypass some paperwork is unconscionable. In addition, CBP’s policies of metering – a practice that strands asylum seekers in dangerous conditions and illegally prevents them from seeking asylum – may have meant that even more families were subject to the cruelty of zero-tolerance once they felt forced to cross between ports.

“This report is a reminder that the Trump administration has little concern for the lives of women and children fleeing life-threatening circumstances. The administration’s family separation practices and zero-tolerance policy was about attempts at deterrence at any cost. The administration knows full well that it has more effective and humane ways to manage those seeking protection, including the cost-effective Family Case management Program that ICE dismantled in 2017. The Zero-Tolerance Policy, and the separation of families, was reckless and immoral and the government should be held accountable for it.”