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More Migrant Children Likely Separated 01/18 06:17

   Thousands more migrant children may have been split from their families than 
the Trump administration previously reported, in part because officials were 
stepping up family separations long before the border policy that prompted 
international outrage last spring, a government watchdog said Thursday.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Thousands more migrant children may have been split from 
their families than the Trump administration previously reported, in part 
because officials were stepping up family separations long before the border 
policy that prompted international outrage last spring, a government watchdog 
said Thursday.

   It's unclear just how many family separations occurred at the U.S.-Mexico 
border; immigration officials are allowed under longstanding policy to separate 
families under certain circumstances. Health and Human Services, the agency 
tasked with caring for migrant children, did not adequately track them until 
after a judge ruled that children must be reunited with their families, 
according to the report by the agency's inspector general.

   Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for evaluations, said the number of 
children removed from their parents was certainly larger than the 2,737 listed 
by the government in court documents. Those documents chronicled separations 
that took place as parents were criminally prosecuted for illegally entering 
the country under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy.

   "It's certainly more," Maxwell said. "But precisely how much more is 

   Maxwell said investigators didn't have specific numbers, but that Health and 
Human Services staff had estimated the tally to be in the thousands.

   Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who sued on behalf 
of a mother separated from her son, said the separation policy "was a cruel 
disaster from the start. This report reaffirms that the government never had a 
clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents."

   Most of the tens of thousands of children who come into government custody 
cross the border alone. But the report found that in late 2016, 0.3 percent of 
children turned over to Health and Human Services had crossed with a parent and 
were separated. By the summer of 2017, that percentage had grown to 3.6 
percent, officials said. The watchdog did not give exact numbers, but the total 
number of migrant children who passed through the agency's care during the 2017 
budget year was 40,810. The separated children had already been released to 
sponsors, who are generally parents or other close relatives.

   The inspector general did not say why the children had been separated before 
the zero-tolerance policy. Immigration officials are allowed to take a child 
from a parent in certain cases --- serious criminal charges against a parent, 
concerns over the health and welfare of a child or medical concerns. That 
policy has long been in place.

   Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security, said the report 
reinforced what officials have long said. "For more than a decade it was and 
continues to be standard for apprehended minors to be separated when the adult 
is not the parent or legal guardian, the child's safety is at risk" or there's 
a record of a "serious criminal activity by the adult," she said.

   In some cases, however, Homeland Security officials said a parent had a 
criminal history but did not offer details on the crimes, the watchdog reported.

   The number of families coming across the border has grown even as overall 
illegal border crossings have decreased dramatically compared with historic 
trends. Over the past three months, families made up the majority of Border 
Patrol arrests.

   The Administration for Children and Families, the division under Health and 
Human Services that manages the care of unaccompanied minors, said it generally 
agreed with the findings and noted the report did not find that the agency lost 
track of children under its care. It also noted new policies were in place to 
help track newly separated children. And the court never instructed officials 
to determine the number of children separated before the June 26 ruling.

   Last spring, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said anyone caught crossing 
the border illegally would be criminally prosecuted. Families were brought into 
custody by U.S. Border patrol officials, then their parents taken to criminal 
court. If the parents were gone longer than 72 hours --- the length of time 
Border Patrol is allowed to hold children --- the children were transferred to 
the custody of Health and Human Services.

   The practice prompted an outcry, with church groups and lawmakers calling 
the separations inhumane. Trump ordered an end to the separations on June 20. 
At the time, a federal judge who was already hearing the case of a mother 
separated from her son ruled that children must be reunited with their parents. 
Since the court order, 118 children have been separated.

   Despite "considerable" effort by Health and Human Services to locate all the 
children placed in its care, the report said officials were still finding new 
cases as long as five months after the judge's order requiring reunifications.

   "There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the 
court case," investigators concluded.

   They said it's not clear the system put in place to track separated children 
is good enough. And the lack of detail from immigration authorities continues 
to be an issue.

   The border remains 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.

   The inspector general's office was also looking into other aspects of the 
separations, including the health and mental well-being of the children who had 
been separated. It expects to have other reports on the topic.

   Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House 
Homeland Security Committee, said he would hold the government accountable in 
the matter. "The Trump administration, with its unique blend of incompetence, 
cruelty, and disregard for basic decency, misled the American public on one of 
its most heinous policies to date," he said in a statement.


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