It seems likely that thousands more migrant children were split from their families than the administration of US President Donald Trump has acknowledged, in part because officials were stepping up family separations before the border policy was implemented last year, a US government watchdog said on Thursday.
It is unclear just how many family separations occurred at the US-Mexico border; immigration officials are allowed under longstanding policy to separate families under certain circumstances.
US Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with caring for migrant children, did not adequately track them until after a judge ruled that children must be reunited with their families, according to the report by the agency’s inspector-general.
Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector-general for evaluations, said the number of children removed from their parents was certainly larger than the 2,737 listed by the government in court documents.
Those documents chronicled separations that took place as parents were criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the country under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
“It’s certainly more, but precisely how much more is unknown,” Maxwell said.
Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who sued on behalf of a mother separated from her son, said the separation policy “was a cruel disaster from the start.”
“This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents,” Gelernt said.
Most of the tens of thousands of children who come into government custody cross the border alone, but the report found that in late 2016, 0.3 percent of children turned over to Health and Human Services had crossed with a parent and were separated.
By the summer of 2017, that percentage had grown to 3.6 percent, officials said.
The watchdog did not have exact numbers, but the total number of migrant children who passed through the agency’s care during the 2017 budget year was 40,810. The separated children had already been released to sponsors, who are generally parents or other close relatives.
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