The Trump administration said Friday that it had reunified approximately 500 families separated at the border but the status of thousands more separated families remained unclear.
The lack of further details from the administration belies the disjointed government handling of parents separated from children at the border.
As the children and parents were shuttled to separate government agencies under the effort, little planning appears to have gone into how they would be brought back together when the parents were finished with jail sentences for their criminal charges.
Now, case workers, lawyers and parents are scrambling to try to find their children through the maze of government bureaucracy and red tape surrounding their cases.
The government agencies caring for the parents and children have consistently declined to make clear exactly how many children are in the government’s care as a direct result of the “zero tolerance” initiative begun last month to prosecute all adults for crossing the border illegally, thus separating those who have children while they face criminal charges. On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said there were roughly 2,000.
A letter from Customs and Border Protection sent to congressional offices and obtained by CNN, said the 500 families figure was more than 15% of the total number of families that have been separated. By that math, the total number of separations would be more than 3,000.
“The administration continues to work to reunify prosecuted parents with their children,” Customs and Border Protection congressional affairs staffer Pete Ladowicz in an email to congressional offices. “US Customs and Border Protection has unified approximately 500 children (over 15%) with their parents who had been referred for prosecution for illegal entry. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services are developing a process to be centered at ICE’s Port Isabel Detention Center to continue unification efforts.”
The administration has thus far only provided two overlapping figures for how many children have been affected.
From April 19 through the end of May, 1,995 children were separated due to the administration’s zero tolerance policy, and 2,342 were separated from May 5 to June 9, according to Department of Homeland Security data. The policy to refer parents for prosecution was made public May 7 and the policy continued until Wednesday, when the President signed an executive order reversing course to keep families together despite any prosecutions.
It’s not clear from this statement whether the reunified children were in HHS custody, as Customs and Border Protection hands children off to HHS and parents off to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement after they’re finished being prosecuted. It’s possible these were families that were only separated for the duration of the prosecution, and the children were never sent to HHS.
DHS and HHS did not answer follow-up questions.