Mismatched IT made family separation crisis worse, watchdog says

shutterstock ID 559989226 By Susan Schmitz 

A report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general said that many agency components mismanaged the implementation of a "zero tolerance" policy at the border, and mismatched and incompatible IT exacerbated problems.

The report found that, as was reported at the time, incompatible IT systems at Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services "hindered efforts to identify, track, and reunify parents and children separated under the Zero Tolerance Policy."

As FCW reported in June, HHS systems for tracking unaccompanied children were not built to interface with DHS systems for migrants apprehended crossing the U.S. border illegally or for addressing  claims of refugee status that were found to be lacking merit. Unaccompanied children apprehended at the border are turned over after processing to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS for eventual placement with host families while their cases are adjudicated. When DHS decided to reclassify children separated from their parents by law enforcement as "unaccompanied," there was no data field in HHS systems to include information on their parents.

The IG report was highly critical of the DHS response to this data gap. DHS reported on June 23 that it had created a "central database" with HHS containing information on the whereabouts of separated parents and children.

The IG "found no evidence that such a database exists" and was eventually directed to a manually updated spreadsheet shared by HHS, CPB and ICE called a "matching table." The IG reported that DHS has "since acknowledged … that there is "no direct electronic interface" between DHS and HHS tracking systems.

"We also now know the Administration lied about keeping a central database to keep track of children that were under the care of DHS and HHS," Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.

Additionally, IG personnel found evidence of other potential data gaps. The Border Patrol does not give ID bracelets to very young "pre-verbal" children apprehended at the border, nor are photographs taken or fingerprints made to connect data on those children with data on the adults that accompanied them across the southern border.

In reply comments, DHS oversight liaison Jim Crumpacker acknowledged the data gap saying, "despite the fact that the two departments' tracking systems have no direct electronic interface, the government took exhaustive efforts  to overcome this challenge, and stand up a process to safely reunify families" to comply with a court decision.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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