October 12, 2018

In April 2018, the Trump administration announced a new “Zero Tolerance” immigration enforcement policy, requiring that all improper entry offenses be referred for criminal prosecution. This policy resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents, and many have still not been reunited, despite a court order.

CREW filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to understand the record management program DHS says is being used to bring families back together. CREW requested all documents since President Trump’s inauguration about policies and procedures of the DHS records management program that apply to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In a second FOIA request, CREW asked for documents related to the process of identifying and tracking minors taken into custody, and documents about the creation of a “Central Database” and “Matching Table” used to reunited families.

The Zero Tolerance policy “fundamentally changed DHS’ approach to immigration enforcement,” the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted, because adults facing criminal prosecution were separated from minors who were held in DHS custody. As a result, thousands of children were separated from their parents.

Following massive public outcry, President Trump halted the family separations by Executive Order issued June 20, 2018. On June 26, 2018, a federal court ordered the government to reunify separated children and parents within 30 days — which it has still failed to do.

On September 27, 2018, the DHS OIG issued a report that raised concerns that DHS has destroyed or lost records that could have been used to reunite hundreds of families, which would violate the Federal Records Act, if not other laws. The OIG found that “DHS . . . struggled to identify, track, and reunify families separated under Zero Tolerance due to limitations with its information technology system.” Contrary to public statements in June 2018 that DHS had a “central database” with location information for separated parents and minors, “OIG found no evidence that such a database exists.” The OIG noted that the agency took “many weeks” to provide them with data relating to family separations and unification, that the data was “incomplete and inconsistent, raising questions about its reliability.”

The requested records will shed light on the extent of the deficiencies in the DHS record management policy. Problems with record keeping in this case have had catastrophic consequences for families separated at the border, and there is intense public interest in whether DHS is really doing their best to comply with records law and reunite families.

Read the FOIA requests here:

Records management

Tracking and identifying minors