‘Deleted’ families: The details about what went wrong with Trump’s family-separation activities


When a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunify migrant families separated at the border, the government’s cleanup crews faced an immediate problem.

They weren’t sure who the families were, let alone what to call them. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) databases had categories for “family units,” & “unaccompanied alien children” who arrive without parents. They did not have a distinct classification for more than 2,600 children who had been stripped away from their families & placed in government shelters.

So agents came up with a new term: “deleted family units.” But when they sent that info to the refugee office at the HHS, which was told to facilitate the reunifications, the office’s database didn’t have a column for such families.

The crucial tool for fixing the problem was crippled. Case workers & government health officials had to sift by hand through the files of all the nearly 12,000 migrant children in HHS custody to figure out which ones had arrived with parents, where the adults were jailed & how to put them back together.

Compounding failures to record, classify & keep track of migrant parents & children pulled apart… were at the core of what is now widely regarded as one of the biggest debacles of his presidency. The rapid implementation & sudden reversal of the policy whiplashed multiple federal agencies, forcing the activation of an HHS command center ordinarily used to handle hurricanes…

After his 30-day deadline to reunite the “deleted” families passed Thursday, US District Court Judge Sabraw lambasted the government for its lack of preparation & coordination.

“There were three agencies, & each was like its own stovepipe. Each had its own boss, & they did not communicate,” Sabraw said at a Friday court hearing… “What was lost in the process was the family. The parents didn’t know where the children were, & the children didn’t know where the parents were. And the government didn’t know either.”

This account of the separation plan’s implementation & sudden demise is based on court records as well as interviews with more than 20 current & former government officials, advocates & contractors, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to give candid views & diagnose mistakes.

Trump officials have insisted they were not doing anything extraordinary, & were simply upholding the law. The administration saw the separations as a powerful tool to deter illegal border crossings, & did not anticipate the raw emotional backlash from separating thousands of families to prosecute the parents for crossing the border illegally.

Most of those parents were charged with misdemeanors & taken to federal courthouses for mass trials, where they were sentenced to time served. By then their children were already in government shelters. The government did not view the families as a discrete group, nor devise a special plan to reunite them, until Sabraw told them to do so.
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One result was that more than 400 parents were deported without their children. Many others say they went weeks without being able to speak to their sons & daughters &…dozens… signed forms waiving their rights to reclaim their children without understanding what those forms said.

Scrambling to meet the judge’s reunification timeline, government chaperons transported children from shelters scattered across the country to immigration jails near the border where they’d been severed from their parents weeks or months before.

One attorney said Friday that 10 days had passed since her client was told she would be reunited with her 6-year-old daughter. She remained in detention in TX, & neither she nor a social worker for her daughter, waiting in a NY shelter, could get an explanation… said the attorney, Eileen Blessinger.

In court filings Thursday, the government said it had reunited more than 1,800 children with their parents or other guardians. But 711 children would remain separated for now, because their parents had been deported, had criminal records or otherwise had not been cleared to regain custody.

In the end, Trump’s decision to stop separating families, followed by Sabraw’s reunification order, has largely brought a return to the status quo at the border, with hundreds of adults released from custody to await immigration hearings while living with their children in the US.

“If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” Trump griped before his June 20 executive order, calling it “a tough dilemma.”

Senior administration officials said they made efforts to note which families had been broken up & that they believed the HHS system already in place would have allowed parents to recover their children & leave the country together by agreeing to voluntary deportation.

“There was always an intent for reunification to occur. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent condition,” one official said.

Sabraw, who was appointed to the federal bench by George W. Bush, said even a short-term split was unacceptable.

“It is the act of separation from a parent, particularly with young children, that matters,” he told the government in court proceedings.
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When illegal crossings along the Mexico border jumped this spring to their highest levels since Trump took office, the president fumed, telling aides, “This can’t happen on my watch.” He singled out DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for blame.

Family units consisting of at least one parent & one child were a growing share of those coming across, typically to turn themselves in & claim asylum, citing drug violence & gang threats in Central America. CBP officials called them “non-impactables,” meaning that the adults knew that arriving with children would probably result in them being released from detention to await immigration hearings… Agents in the field had long clamored for a way to deter those border crossers, believing that some are smugglers & that allowing them to go unpunished invites more lawbreaking. By this spring, according to DHS, 25% of all illegal border crossers were family groups.

“We truly felt this was something we had to do,” a senior DHS official said. “Enforcing the law for the right reasons is not a bad decision.”

Suddenly, an idea considered too extreme by the Obama administration was back in play, pushed by powerful supporters, including AG Sessions, Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, and WH Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.

But there were also top officials at DHS & other agencies who warned it could go disastrously wrong.

“Some of us didn’t think it would be good policy. Not because it wouldn’t be effective, but because it doesn’t reflect American values, & because it would bring a huge blowback,” said James Nealon, a former DHS international policy adviser who resigned in February.

The government previously had separated parents on a more limited basis, such as when trafficking was suspected or the relationship to the child was in doubt.

Last year, with no public announcement, the administration piloted a mass-separation system in the El Paso area. When illegal crossings jumped this spring, Trump signed off on a blanket policy for the whole border.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, & that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said in a May 7 speech in AZ. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
One senior CBP official said agents were quietly directed not to refer parents of children under 5 for criminal prosecution. But 27 toddlers & preschoolers were separated between the start of “0-tolerance” on May 5 & Trump’s executive order ending separations on June 20. Dozens more had been taken from their parents in previous weeks.

As the system ramped up, thousands of children were funneled into shelters overseen by HHS, so many that the agency had to set up a tent camp outside El Paso & plan for additional ones on military bases.
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“I think CBP & ICE would have preferred a plan that was more incremental, starting in certain locations, or with specific groups,” said Stewart Verdery, assist. DHS secretary under Bush… “Something that could be done in a ratcheted way, so you could know exactly where people were physically & with respect to litigation status.”

On June 28, two days after Sabraw’s reunification order, DHS officials held a conference call for members of its Advisory Council, a group of security experts & former officials who provide recommendations & counsel… One member, David A. Martin, said officials had few answers when… members asked how they planned to bring families back together: “They were saying, ‘Well, we’re working on it.’ ” Two weeks later, he & three other members quit in disgust.

In his resignation letter, Martin said the separations were “executed with astounding casualness about precise tracking of family relationships — as though eventual reunification was deemed unlikely or at least unimportant.”

Another member who quit, Elizabeth Holtzman, said the failure to create records to track parents & children demonstrated “utter depravity.”
“This is child kidnapping, plain & simple,” she wrote in her resignation letter, urging Nielsen to quit.

Top officials believed any controversy generated by the family separations could be parlayed into leverage for negotiations with Democrats over the Obama-era DACA program & border wall funding, according to current & former DHS officials involved in planning the policy.

Instead the firestorm has “poisoned the well,” leaving the chances of congressional action even more remote, said Verdery,… “If you’re a Democrat or a moderate, & a proposal is pigeonholed as DHS ‘breaking up families,’ it’s going to be a nonstarter.”

Well before Trump took office, people inside & outside HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) recognized that the custom-built database used since 2014 to track the migrant children in its custody was clunky & flawed.

The Unaccompanied Children Portal crashed often, according to… people with access to it. And because it sometimes failed to save info, caseworkers were trained to copy whatever they were trying to enter…into a separate Word document.

Most serious, the portal was not built in a way that allowed ORR to add data categories or quickly sort the information it contains, according to three people familiar with it. If HHS staff wanted to compile specific info, such as a roster of all the pregnant teenagers at shelters, “It would be months & months,” said a former department official.

Because the system was not designed with an expectation that ORR would need to find the detained parents of its children, the portal did not include a place to type in information about parents’ identity… A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that “the interagency process to refer & transfer [unaccompanied children] from DHS to HHS is inefficient & vulnerable to errors because it relies on e-mails & manual data entry, & documented standard procedures, including defined roles & responsibilities, do not exist.”
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By 2016, the former official said, then-HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell “was frustrated, because, a lot of times we just had to say, ‘We can’t get this data,’ or ‘We can get it, but it will take a couple of weeks.’ ”

The department hired a government contractor who made recommendations for upgrading the system & adding more staff. A few improvements were made, but it was near the end of the Obama administration, & the old guard ran out of time. “We left a blueprint for the new administration to pick up,” the former official said. “To my knowledge, nothing happened.”

Just before Trump was sworn in, a trio of immigrant advocacy groups issued a report lamenting what it said was a slow increase in families being separated at the border. It warned that “government agencies have little policy guidance on family unity & separation, & no consistent or comprehensive mechanisms to document family status or trace family members.”

After the new administration took over, “We were begging them to start counting those numbers” of separated children, said Michelle Brane, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights & justice program, which was one of the groups that authored the report. “They insisted they don’t have a way to do that.”

An HHS spokesman said a “data element” was added to the system about two weeks ago to make clear whether a child was separated from a parent or guardian while being apprehended. The system now had the capacity to generate reports, as well as to upload Word documents & spreadsheets, the spokesman said.

HHS officials said they participated in WH calls & meetings after “0- tolerance” was announced. But they did not address repeated questions about whether the department was involved in planning the policy.
The ORR was overwhelmed with the number of children in its custody once the mass separations began. And the files arriving from the CBP were a mess.

In some cases, CBP agents had handwritten parents’ names & alien numbers in children’s files that were sent on to ORR. But it was hit or miss, according to several children’s advocates familiar with the records. One HHS official said that files he reviewed typically contained parents’ names but did not say where they could be located.

The underlying problem, though, was that the problem-ridden database “was not set up to reunite children [with] parents…,” said Robert Carey, who was director of ORR for the final two years of the Obama era.

As one senior DHS official put it: “We had a system that was designed to flow one way.”
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Four days before Sabraw’s reunification order, HHS Secretary Alex Azar pulled responsibility for returning children to their parents away from ORR & placed it in the hands of emergency responders.

Today, DOJ officials insist “0-tolerance” remains in force. The agency “continues to prosecute, to the extent practicable, all cases referred to them for prosecution,” said spokesman Devin O’Malley.

Though illegal crossings typically decline during summer, DHS officials point to a drop in arrests along the border last month as proof the family separation system was working before the president halted it.

“Many of the facts around the enforcement efforts were lost in the media & congressional hysteria, misreporting, dishonest assertions, & outright lies about the efforts of the administration,” one senior administration official vented. “The facts & rule of law lost out to emotional claims.”

CBP officials privately predict that smugglers will be emboldened by flip-flopping enforcement standards, & say they are bracing for the number of crossings to rise. With families once more largely exempted, agents have grudgingly reverted to the same “catch & release” system Trump promised to end.

“We missed out on an opportunity to educate the public about the reality of the border,” said one CBP official who shared criticism of the WH on the condition of anonymity. “You have to think everything through before you move on something like this, & when the pushback hits, you have to weather the storm.”

The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit that led to Sabraw’s order, said it could take months to track down hundreds of deported parents & make arrangements to return their children. Some parents may be hard to reach or hiding from the very threats that prompted them to flee in the first place.
In the meantime, the government will attempt to place their children with vetted guardians. Otherwise, they will remain in shelters.

“It’s going to be really hard detective work,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project. “Hopefully we will find them.”


I think that it would be appropriate for Trump to give up playing golf until the remaining children who were separated are given back to their parent or another family member.


I totally support giving them back to a family member in the country they left, immediately.


They will have to figure out how to do that for the children whose parents were deported without their children. It’s not exactly easy when they weren’t keeping records.

It’s cute how naive I was to think that Trump’s Charlottesville remarks would be the defining moment of his presidency. This debacle will definitely have its own chapter in the history books. Hope Trump enjoys being remembered as a villain. Our kids will ask how people could possibly support it and I don’t have an answer.


And it is just so pathetic how many still support these atrocious actions, whereas “the Cause” is more important than families with young children. We have reached a new low in our history. The fact that Trump wants to operate as an autocrat is one thing, but that his policies on this and some other matters that is supported by so many people is very disheartening.

The fact that Pope Francis and the USCCB have come out strongly against it seems to mean nothing to some Catholics.


Separated from her mother by Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the child was forced to sign a statement confirming that she understood it was her responsibility to stay away from her abuser.

Before D.L. was taken away, her mother provided authorities with the phone number of D.L.’s father, an undocumented immigrant living in California. On June 11, D.L.’s father received a phone call from Southwest Key explaining that a boy had fondled his daughter and other girls. According to family spokesperson Mark Lane, D.L.’s father was told not to worry, because Southwest Key was changing some of its protocols and such abuse would not happen again. (Lane was connected with D.L.’s family through Families Belong Together, a coalition of civil-rights groups formed in response to the recent border crackdown.) Lane says that D.L.’s father asked to speak with a social worker, but, despite promises from the facility, he never heard from one.

On June 22, Southwest Key again contacted D.L.’s father and informed him that the same boy initially cited for abuse had hit and fondled D.L. again. According to Lane, D.L.’s father asked how the facility could allow this to happen, and the woman on the phone responded that she was only calling him to advise him that it had happened, that she didn’t have permission to say anything else, and he would have to speak with the director…

According to D.L.’s mother, when the family came together again, the young girl was confused. “I hugged her, I was crying. She didn’t recognize me,” the mother said. “She told me that she thought I was never going to be with her again and that she was going to have to live with another lady. She behaved like she was still in detention. She wouldn’t touch me, hug me, or kiss me.”


The cruelty of Trump’s family separation activity is astounding and contrary to the American values that make America exceptional - but claiming that it is being done en mass to protect these children adds insult to injury.


I have an idea. When someone is apprehended and has entered the country illegally, bringing their children along, just incarcerate the children along with them.

Problem solved. Right ?



If I lived in a place where a pervasive criminal element subjected my family to pervasive violence, I certainly would not abandon my children there if I decided to leave in order to seek asylum in a place where I would be safe. Since these people with children are by and large seeking asylum, their status is under review so neither the parents nor their children need be incarcerated.


You know they were targeting families right? The majority of people caught crossing the border were not criminally prosecuted. Why did they decide to prosecute a disproportionate number of parents with children? My answer is that this was meant to scare people into not coming here. It was meant to hurt to send a message.


That’s a false dichotomy. They could do what other administrations did and keep the families together and give them a court date for a hearing and let them go.


I’m wondering why this topic is scheduled to close today even though there are current comments… anyone?


I don’t know what makes a topic close??? Some have 500+ comments??? Some have 14 hours??? Maybe I should go to frequently asked questions???


I thought that they were usually closed 14 days after the last comment…


There is a question there about the closesure of active threads but no answer…


Did I post something wrong to warrant this? If so, I’ll delete it or a moderator can delete it with my blessing.

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