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Agency that cares for migrant kids was not told Trump admin was separating families, says report

"Unbeknownst to HHS, CBP had been conducting a family separation pilot [program in El Paso] that led to hundreds of separations," said the report.
Image: Customs And Border Patrol Agents Patrol Border In El Paso, TX
A child watches as a Border Patrol agent searches a Central American immigrant after they crossed the border from Mexico in El Paso, Texas on Feb. 1, 2019.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The federal agency that cares for migrant children was not told the Trump administration was intentionally separating parents and children at the border, even after an official asked why there was a surge in unaccompanied minors requiring care, says a report released Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee.

In 2017, the administration launched a pilot program for separating migrant children and parents in El Paso, Texas. The program lasted about six months, during which time more than 1,100 children were separated from their parents, according to court documents.

According to the House report, the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides care to migrant children, was concerned about the rising number of unaccompanied children that had been sent to it by Customs and Border Protection in the latter half of 2017.

In a December 2017 email cited by the report, then-Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told an HHS official who had asked about the surge, “You should have seen a change in the past 10 days or so.”

The pilot program had just ended, which is why McAleenan told the HHS official he should’ve seen a change. McAleenan did not, however, tell the official that the months-long surge had been the result of intentional family separations.

"Unbeknownst to HHS, CBP had been conducting a family separation pilot in the El Paso Border Patrol Sector that led to hundreds of separations," said the report.

Lawyers responsible for reuniting separated families recently disclosed in court that they have been unable to find the parents of 545 children separated in the 2017 pilot program.

The administration instituted family separation across the whole southern border in April 2018. Before the “zero tolerance” policy ended by executive order in June 2018, about 2,800 more children were separated.

The report, authored by the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic majority, highlights the confusion engendered by “zero tolerance.”

“When the policy eventually ended, the lack of interagency planning, coordination and capacity was evident,” said the report. “As administration officials had predicted, the government lacked the capacity to track separated family members. Efforts to reunify separated children continue to this day."

The report makes public for the first time documents that support NBC News reporting on children waiting over 24 hours in vans to reunite with their parents and the Trump administration's lack of a plan to reunite the families it separated.