News media attention may have shifted of late to the government shutdown, the Michael Cohen circus and other Trump Administration misadventures, but the crisis of immigrant children being forcibly separated from their parents has never been resolved. What’s more, recent evidence shows that the problem was and remains even worse than was originally understood.
The federal government originally claimed that fewer than 3,000 children were affected by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border without proper documentation (even those whose families were seeking asylum on humanitarian grounds), but these figures do not represent the full scope and enormity of family separations. A recent review conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)  within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported children began to be forcibly separated from their parents a year before the public announcement of the zero tolerance policies in the spring of 2018, and that many more families were torn apart than was originally acknowledged.
In the summer of 2017, HHS staff noted a significant increase in children being separated from their parents at the border and began to informally track these separations. As was on display in so many other areas during the recent government shutdown, the Trump administration was woefully unprepared to address the human toll of its policy choices. Because there was no system in place to track children separated from their families, HHS staff used Excel spreadsheets to record information on the impacted children. Between late 2016 and August 2017, the proportion of children being separated from their parents by DHS rose from 0.3 percent to 3.6 percent. The absence of a tracking system between the two federal agencies overseeing the policy has made it impossible to track the exact number of separated families, and is part of why the administration has been unable to reunify children with their families.
A new and alarming finding is that separations continued to occur, though at a much slower pace. OIG reports that HHS received 118 separated children into their custody between July and November of 2018, months after a judge ordered a halt to family separations.
This report comes three months after an internal watchdog within DHS released a report  highlighting “zero tolerance” as a highly premature policy that featured poor execution and resulted in thousands of children becoming lost in the federal system, inhumane conditions inside detention centers, and parents desperately trying to locate their children while receiving inconsistent information from Border Patrol agents.
Following these reports, the Trump administration filed a declaration before a federal court stating it would not track the location of the other thousands of separated children as it would take an “extraordinary effort ” — referring to the days and hours it would take to reconcile the available data on these children and literally find them.
It is expected the majority of these children have already been placed in homes of relatives or foster families, but their locations are still unknown. One especially alarming reality is that some of these migrant children may have already been permanently adopted by American families. Last year, the Associated Press investigated  several cases of separated children and found judges in several states had granted custody of these children to other families without the knowledge or consent of their biological parents.
For the thousands of children and their respective families, the psychological and emotional trauma  of this policy will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Sadly, there are many thousands of children not living at or near the border who are harmed by the fear of separation from their loved ones. As North Carolina has experienced in recent weeks, the internal enforcement activities of ICE in our state have created an environment in which many more children are experiencing fear and stress from real and potential family separation.
The evidence is abundant and increasingly clear that policies which fail to consider the wellbeing of children and the need to emphasize family unification, and that instead, build walls between family members, have been a disaster. These policies not only cause grievous harm to those directly impacted, they harm our country as a whole and undermine our collective aspiration to make the American dream a reality.
Lissette Guerrero is an intern with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center and Immigrant & Refugee Rights projects.