Emails Show Azar, Trump Admin Misled – Had “No Way” to Reunify Separated Migrant Families

Meanwhile, Another Child Has Died in the Custody of HHS Sec. Azar’s Office of Refugee Resettlement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – According to press reports concerning newly released internal government emails, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other administration officials misled the American people about the government’s ability to reunify migrant families separated as a result of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

As NBC News reports, “on the same day” the Trump administration indicated it would use a “central database” to reunify thousands of migrant families that it separated at the border, an HHS official was “admitting privately the government only had enough information to reconnect 60 parents with their kids.” NBC News also notes that HHS Sec. Alex Azar told Senators, “there is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located. I’ve sat on the ORR portal with just basic keystrokes, within seconds could find any child in our care for any parent.” But, ten days later, as the first court-ordered deadline for reunification loomed, Trump administration lawyers asked for more time. As the Washington Post noted, the government appeared to lack “a system to monitor everyone’s whereabouts.”

“What will it take for the Trump administration to be held accountable for this horrific policy and their repeated lies to the American people and Congress?,” asked Karl Frisch, a spokesperson for Restore Public Trust.These emails show senior administration officials like HHS Sec. Alex Azar were being dishonest about their failures. We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Trump administration had no ability to track or reunify families separated by its own policy.

The news comes just days after HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) announced that another migrant child died in government custody provided by Southwest Key in Casa Padre, a location which has had no fewer than four sexual abuse allegations. According to BuzzFeed News, Southwest Key, “the largest network of shelters for migrant kids,” “secured $626 million in federal grants in 2018. So far in 2019, that number is at $86 million.”




DHS Claimed the Government Knew the Location of All Children In Its Custody


  • June 23, 2018: DHS Released “Fact Sheet” On “Family Reunification,” Which Claimed Government “Knows The Location Of All Children In Its Custody And Is Working To Reunite Them With Their Families.” “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have a process established to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal. The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families. As part of the apprehension, detention and prosecution process, illegal aliens, adults and children, are initially detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before the children are sent to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and parents to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Each entity plays a role in reunification.  This process is well coordinated.” [DHS Release, 6/23/18]
  • DHS Fact Sheet: “There Is A Central Database Which HHS And DHS Can Access And Update When A Parent(s) Or Minor(s) Location Information Changes.” “Minors come into HHS custody with information provided by DHS regarding how they illegally entered the country and whether or not they were with a parent or adult and, to the extent possible, the parent(s) or guardian(s) information and location. There is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes.” [DHS Release, 6/23/18]

Emails Reveal There Was No Database with Information on Both Parents and Children

  • NBC News: “There Was No Database With Information For Both Parents And Children,” Some Necessary Information “Missing Altogether.” “But at the time, there was no database with information for both parents and children. Some of the necessary information was missing altogether. Behind the scenes, officials began exchanging emails, provided to NBC News by the House Judiciary Committee, that revealed how unprepared the agencies were to reunite families.” [NBC News, 5/1/19]
  • June, 23, 2018: HHS Official Wrote Email Acknowledging “We Have A List Of Parent Alien Numbers But No Way To Link Them To Children.” “On the same day the Trump administration said it would reunite thousands of migrant families it had separated at the border with the help of a ‘central database,’ an official was admitting privately the government only had enough information to reconnect 60 parents with their kids, according to emails obtained by NBC News. ‘[I]n short, no, we do not have any linkages from parents to [children], save for a handful,’ a Health and Human Services official told a top official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement on June 23, 2018. ‘We have a list of parent alien numbers but no way to link them to children.’ In the absence of an effective database, the emails show, officials then began scrambling to fill out a simple spreadsheet with data in hopes of reuniting as many as families as they could.” [NBC News, 5/1/19; Released DHS Emails – 1, 2]

Trump’s DHS and HHS Claimed they Were Tracking Separations and Could Any Child or Parent “Within Seconds”

  • NBC News: Trump Administration Had “Repeatedly” Claimed They Were Keeping Track of Separations. “Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other government officials repeatedly claimed that the Trump administration was keeping track of separations. In a June 19, 2018, press conference at the White House, Nielsen insisted all separated children were being tracked. ‘It is not that I don’t know where they are,’ said Nielsen. ‘I’m saying that the vast majority of children are held by Health and Human Services.’” [NBC News, 5/1/19]
  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar: “There Is No Reason Why Any Parent Would Not Know Where Their Child Is Located.” “HHS said that since 2003 it has ‘developed a number of systems for helping connect UAC [unaccompanied children], including infants and other nonverbal children, with their parents.’ HHS also provided descriptions of its systems for tracking unaccompanied children, including the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) portal, and referred NBC News to a June 26, 2018 quote from HHS Secretary Alex Azar: ‘There is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located. I’ve sat on the ORR portal with just basic keystrokes, within seconds could find any child in our care for any parent.’” [NBC News, 5/1/19]

But in Court Filings, the Trump Admin Claimed Reunification May Not Be Possible

  • February 2019: HHS Official Said In Court Filing That Reuniting Thousands Of Migrant Children Separated From Their Parents May Not Be “Within The Realm Of The Possible.” “The Trump administration said in a court filing that reuniting thousands of migrant children separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border may not be ‘within the realm of the possible.’ The filing late Friday from Jallyn Sualog, deputy director of the department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, was an ordered response in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the government’s separation of thousands of children at the border since the summer of 2017. The estimate of ‘thousands’ comes from the HHS Office of Inspector General’s January report and pertains to children separated before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy came into effect in 2018.” [NBC News, 2/2/19]
  • Filing Said Office Did Not Have Resources To Track Down Children. “Sualog said her office doesn’t have the resources to track down the children, whose numbers could be thousands more than the official estimate. ‘Even if performing the analysis Plaintiffs seek were within the realm of the possible, it would substantially imperil ORR’s ability to perform its core functions without significant increases in appropriations from Congress, and a rapid, dramatic expansion of the ORR data team,’ she said.” [NBC News, 2/2/19]

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Press Release

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