Agencies were surprised at Trump 'zero tolerance' border policy, report finds

Agencies were surprised at Trump 'zero tolerance' border policy, report finds
© Getty Images

Key government agencies were blindsided by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and had no plan in place to deal with the thousands of children who were separated from their parents, according to government investigators.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Wednesday found that both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were caught off guard when Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLewandowski says he's under no obligation to speak truthfully to the media Nadler considering holding Lewandowski in contempt Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing MORE released the “zero tolerance” memo in April.

Officials from DHS and HHS told investigators they were unaware of the memo before it was released, and did not take specific steps in advance of the memo to plan for the separation of parents and children or potential increase in the number of children who would be referred to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The “zero tolerance” policy called for the criminal prosecution of all adult migrants who were detained after trying to cross the country’s southern border. Any children brought across the border were separated from their parents, deemed to be “unaccompanied,” and detained by HHS in separate facilities sometimes hundreds of miles from their parents.

The policy created a massive outcry, and the backlash forced the administration to walk it back just three months later. More than 2,600 children remained separated from their parents when a federal court ordered the administration to reunite them.  

The also report found flaws in how the agencies communicated during the transfers of children and parents to shelters. In some cases, the GAO found that DHS officials did not notify shelter staff that a child had been separated from his or her parents.

Officials at one shelter told GAO investigators that in cases where DHS didn’t tell them about children being separated from their parents, they only learned about it when the child told them.

The report also found that family separations at the border increased months before Sessions wrote the memo and HHS staff asked their DHS counterparts to explain it.

According to the report, HHS staff said they were told not to prepare for an increase in children separated from their families because DHS officials claimed they did not have an official policy of separating parents and children.

The report was requested by Rep Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneEXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns House panel investigating private equity firms' role in surprise medical billing Hotel industry mounts attack on Airbnb with House bill MORE (D-N.J.), who asked the GAO to audit the administration’s ability to track and reunite the separated children with their families.

“This disturbing GAO report shows the tragic consequences of carrying out a cruel and misguided policy impacting thousands of families without any preparation or prior notification to the agencies charged with implementing it,” Pallone said in a statement.

The report echoes findings from a probe by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s office in September.

That report said the family separation policy was flawed from the start, and DHS was not “fully prepared” for the rollout of the zero tolerance policy.

In a statement, DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the administration has reunited thousands of previously detained children, and has prevented some children from being reunited with adults who could harm them.

Waldman said the administration will continue to refer illegal immigrants for prosecution, but declined to comment on other aspects of the report.

“Unfortunately, the number of families crossing the southwest border illegally is increasing. This means that there may be a proportional increase in cases where adults are separated from children due to concerns about parentage or the adult’s criminal history,” Waldman said.