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.