Former President Donald Trump’s administration forced some illegal immigrants to leave the United States without their children, according to a new watchdog report.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), removed at least 348 parents after June 2017 “without documenting that those parents wanted to leave their children in the United States,” the DHS Office of Inspector General said in the new report.
“In fact, ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country,” the office said.
Trump administration officials previously disputed accusations that illegal immigrants were removed without their children if they wanted their kids removed with them.
“Every parent had the choice to bring the child back with them when they were removed. The ones who did not bring the children with them made the choice not to have the child accompany them,” then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told members of Congress during a Dec. 20, 2018 hearing.
“There was no parent who has been deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them,” she added during a congressional hearing about three months later.
Nielsen cited parents’ conversations with the U.S. officials effecting their removal, communications between the parents and their home country’s consulate or embassy, and court orders requiring the government to confirm the parents’ decisions regarding their children.
Elsewhere, officials indicated there was a process to determine whether immigrants who were being removed wanted to take their children with them.
Then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Matthew Albence told members of Congress in mid-2018 that ICE policy “dictates how reunification may occur” and that officials could “go into each file and see the records that are there,” enabling them to “make a note that the parent declined reunification.”
Around the same time, DHS said in a fact sheet ICE “will seek to reunite verified family units and link their removal proceedings so that family units can be returned to their home countries together.”
But DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, a Trump nominee, found that ICE “did not have clear guidance to include any prescribed process or procedure requiring officers to ascertain, document, or honor parents’ decisions as to whether to leave their children in the United States when they were removed.”
The agency does not require ICE officers to ask whether parents want to bring their children with them to their home country or to honor parents’ requests when the parents express that they want to bring their children.
Among the cases where ICE documented a parent’s choice in leaving a child behind in the United States, some of the records are “significantly flawed,” the new report said, “suggesting that not all parents who purportedly waived reunification did so knowingly and voluntarily.”
DHS and ICE did not respond to requests for comment.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the report showed the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy “has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the meanest, most shameful chapters in our nation’s immigration history.”
The Trump administration separated family units at the border in an attempt, officials said, to comply with federal law. The administration ramped up criminal prosecutions of illegal border crossers in July 2017, according to the inspector general’s report, through July 2018, when a federal judge ordered the administration to provide reunification notice to parents.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs in the case, previously said it found the Trump administration deported hundreds of parents without their children.
In a statement to news outlets, Lee Gelernt, the lawyer with the union, said the report “is consistent with the horrifying facts we discovered in the litigation: that parents were deported without the opportunity to bring their children with them.”
“Throughout the litigation we learned that some parents were even told their child would join them on the plane only to have the plane take off without the child,” he added.