In 2018, a two-year-old was brought across the U.S.-Mexico border by parents, taken from family by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which listed the event as a “zero tolerance separation” under the controversial Trump administration border policy that ran through May and June 2018.
Soon after, a federal judge ruled that families had to be reunited. However, CBP was unable to confirm that the two-year-old, once in its custody, was one of its zero tolerance separations. The problem was that the border agents didn’t enter enough information about the child into the bureau’s system that was supposed to track families during the Trump administration separation program at the border.
This anecdote is similar to that of a three-year-old and four-year-old highlighted in a Nov. 25 Department of Homeland Security inspector general report, which found that the department’s IT infrastructure wasn’t prepared for the child separation policy. Because of poor IT practices, the DHS IG was unable to confirm the number of families the department separated at the southern border — and officials were aware of the IT problems for more than six months before the policy went into effect.
According to the report, CBP used “ad hoc" methods to track family separation to account for a specific system that lacked the ability to separate family members, track separation after a family unit was deleted from the system and reunite family members. The inadequate infrastructure led to “widespread errors.”
DHS estimated that its border patrol agents separated more than 3,000 children for their families during those 2018 months. The department estimates that it completed over 2,100 reunifications, but the IG found 136 children with potential family relationships that DHS didn’t properly record. In a longer review of Oct. 1, 2017, to Feb. 14, 2019, the IG found another 1,233 children with potential family relationships that CBP didn’t record properly.
“Without a reliable account of all family relationships, we could not validate the total number of separations, or reunifications,” the IG wrote.
The various processing techniques used by border patrol agents introduced “data errors” that made it difficult for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement and Removal Operations to accurately track separated family members. DHS did make IT modifications in preparation for the policy, but they didn’t completely absolve problems.
DHS components had several IT systems available for tracking migrants throughout the process, including one platform, called ENFORCE (e3), that allowed agents to capture biographic, biometric and apprehension information on detainees.
The e3 system, however, couldn’t separate out adults referred for prosecution from the family they arrived with, meaning that border agents had to delete the entire family unit from the system to process family members as single adults and unaccompanied children. And, once records were deleted from the system, border agents couldn’t view the family united identification number, which could only be retrieved by an IT specialist at CBP headquarters.
The same system also couldn’t track separated family members because it didn’t have the ability to search by last name, age range or apprehension date. Modifications to the system were made a month before the zero tolerance policy began, but the changes didn’t help track separations under the policy. This led to the ad hoc tracking methods by agents.
“Lacking critical IT tracking capability, border patrol immediately struggled to keep pace with the high volume of migrant apprehensions and separations resulting from Zero Tolerance,” the IG wrote. It later added, “instead, border patrol agents had to process the parents and their children together again in e3, assign new family unit numbers (potentially duplicating records), and further annotate the case files to state that family members were reunified."
The report also found that the border patrol’s poor tracking efforts led to difficulties for ICE, whose agents found the border patrol’s separation data “indecipherable” and also struggled due to “inadequate information” provided by border patrol. The request process for transferring a child to HHS custody also lacked automation, meaning requests were sent over email. According to the report, it typically took five or more emails to place one child. One border patrol agent told the IG that she received 1,700 emails about child transfers during one week. HHS and DHS also had significant trouble sharing information with each other regarding the children.
Top leadership at ICE and border patrol provided poor guidance on how to effectively implement the separation policy. While border patrol sent out a presentation to agents on how to document separation, there was no system training, guidance was not “consistently communicated” and some staff members didn’t receive guidance until days after the policy was in effect.
The DHS IG made five recommendations, specifically recommending that the assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Information and Technology work to make modifications to e3 to minimize user error and improve data quality. It also recommended that the DHS CIO work with ICE and CBP to improve their system interoperability. The department agreed with all the recommendations.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.