AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The federal government was so unprepared to carry out the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families earlier this year that it wasn't even ready to house the children, nor did it even have a plan to reunite them with their parents. That is from a scathing report from the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog this week.
The administration has abandoned its policy of separating families to deter illegal immigration, but only after widespread outrage, and after more than 2,600 children were already separated from their parents. To talk more about the DHS inspector general's findings, we're joined by NPR's Joel Rose. Hey, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So we've been hearing all year about the problems with this policy of separating families. But what is new in this report that contradicts what we've been hearing from the administration?
ROSE: Well, it contradicts some early assurances that we got from federal officials as this policy was being rolled out. Here's DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. Don't believe the press. They are very well taken care of.
ROSE: But this report paints a much less rosy picture. The inspector general found that DHS held hundreds of migrant children in Border Patrol facilities well beyond the legal limit of 72 hours. In fact, federal officials held more than 800 migrant children for longer than that, including one child who was held for 25 days.
And many of these children were held in metal cages in Border Patrol facilities near the border until the government was able to find space in shelters that are equipped to house children.
CHANG: And as we mentioned, many parents and children had trouble finding each other in the system after they were separated.
ROSE: Well, again, at the time, officials denied that that was a problem. Remember, here's Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, speaking back in June before Congress.
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ALEX AZAR: There is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located. I could, with just basic keystrokes, within seconds, could find any child in our care for any parent.
ROSE: HHS, by the way, cared for children after they were separated, while DHS had custody of their parents. And at the time, DHS said there was a central database of the locations of parents and their children.
CHANG: A central database. Did the inspector general find that central database?
ROSE: The inspector general found no evidence that there was such a central database. The two agencies actually had computer systems that could not communicate with each other. And the inspector general found that when distraught parents tried to track down their children, the government sometimes gave them inconsistent or just wrong information. In some cases, parents couldn't communicate with their kids at all.
CHANG: So then what happened to those families?
ROSE: The government was ordered to reunify them by a federal judge, and it has reconnected more than 2,000 children with their parents. But the inspector general's report says that this lack of communication made that reunification process slower.
And the process was especially hard for children who were so young that they couldn't speak. Immigration authorities, according to this report, made no effort to identify those young children in any way. No wristbands and no photographs of them were taken, so it was only through communication with the parents that authorities were able to find these children and reunite them.
CHANG: So have federal officials responded to the inspector general's report in any way?
ROSE: Well, as the administration often does, it is blaming, quote, "immigration laws that are broken and poorly written," unquote. DHS does say that it deserves some credit for working, quote, "exhaustively" to reunite these families. Although, again, they were ordered to do so by a judge. But DHS also acknowledged that the government's computer systems still do not communicate across these agencies.
CHANG: Are there any children who still haven't been reunited with their parents?
ROSE: Oh, yeah. More than 130 remain in U.S. custody apart from their parents, mostly because those parents have already been deported without them back to Central America.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks very much, Joel.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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