The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently condemned U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for its role in separating families at the border in 2018. Like previous inspections, the government oversight agency said CBP repeatedly underreported the number of people it separated.

This time, the OIG found that a component of CBP—the Office of Field Operations (OFO)—separated dozens of families at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border on the basis that they had prior, non-violent immigration violations. OFO carried out this horrific practice even though the government explicitly stated it would not separate families for such offenses.

The OIG released the report two years after the Trump administration’s highly controversial and illegal “Zero Tolerance” policy. This policy led to thousands of children being separated from their parents at the U.S.- Mexico border.

How Many Families Did OFO Separate?

The Inspector General’s report contains several notable findings regarding OFO’s role in family separation. The report found:

  • OFO previously claimed that it only separated 7 asylum-seeking parents from their children at ports of entry between May 6 and July 9, 2018. In fact, at least 60 asylum-seeking families were separated at 11 ports of entry during this time.
  • More than half of those separations were based solely on the asylum-seeking parents’ prior non-violent immigration violations.
  • CBP did not consistently use a tracking system at ports of entry. This suggests that OFO separated more families at ports of entry than OIG was able to identify.

Who Did OFO Separate?

The report revealed that 35 asylum-seeking families were separated by OFO officials for immigration violations. These violations included previously entering the United States without a visa or a parent having a prior expedited removal order from the United States. All presented themselves legally at ports of entry.

  • The 35 families identified by the Inspector General included 40 children—the youngest was 5 months old.
  • All of the children were separated from their parents for at least 4 weeks. At least one child remains separated from their parent more than a year later.
  • In one case, OFO separated a 26-year-old Guatemalan mother and her four children. They ranged in age from 12 years old to 5 months. All had requested asylum at the port of entry. The OIG interviewed the mother in an ICE detention center who said she would no longer be able to nurse her baby due to the length of the separation.

Government Misled the Public About Separations at Ports of Entry

The government’s inconsistent messaging about where it would separate families had grave results.

Department officials – including then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen – publicly stated that people who requested asylum at ports of entry would not be criminally prosecuted or separated from their family members.

Families desperate to find safe haven in the United States showed up at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum. They were told this was legal but were separated anyway.

The OFO has not typically been at the center of the family separation travesty, though its parent agency CBP has been repeatedly under fire by the OIG and other watchdog groups before.

The OIG previously found in late 2019 that CBP lacked the technology or mechanisms to record and track the separations. According to the federal watchdog agency, CBP was aware of the deficiencies in tracking separations as early as November 2017 yet failed to address them before the implementation of Zero Tolerance in May 2018.

As it did with this recent report, the government watchdog found the agency’s failure to track these separations means we may never know how many families were ultimately separated by government order.

This should come as no surprise given the public outrage at one of the Trump administration’s cruelest and most draconian practices. This new report shows the depths of this administration’s depravity. Not only did the government go back on its promise not to forcibly separate asylum-seeking families appearing at ports of entry, but it continues to hide the extent of separations that occurred.

The administration must take immediate steps to document every single separation that occurred under the Zero Tolerance policy and exhaust any recourse available to the family members who were subject to the separations.