Migrant children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy often spent days in federal facilities designed for short-term use as the Department of Homeland Security struggled to track and reunify families, says a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. The report outlines the difficulties the department faced enforcing the administration’s zero tolerance policy, which called for the criminal prosecution of adults entering the U.S. illegally, the Wall Street Journal reports. Because children can’t be held in criminal custody, more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the border in May and June, prompting widespread criticism from members of both parties before President Trump ultimately rolled back the policy at the end of June.
The watchdog report concluded that “DHS was not fully prepared to implement the Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its aftereffects.” Without a centralized database to share information about children and their parents among agencies, federal agents resorted to interviewing detained adults about their children and sending information via email, leaving gaps in the data about people the government was holding, the report said. Investigators found no evidence that DHS’s planned “central database” even existed. Under government guidelines, Customs and Border Protection can hold children up to 72 hours before sending them to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The government “exceeded the 72-hour period in many instances,” the report found, leaving hundreds of children in facilities “not designed to hold people for long periods of time.” One child was held for 25 days. The report shows “the difficulties in enforcing immigration laws that are broken and poorly written,” said a DHS spokeswoman. The release of the report Tuesday prompted Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) to call for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign.