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Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the border than was previously known, inspector general says

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  • Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border than was previously known, a government watchdog announced Thursday.
  • The family separations sparked by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy last spring had previously been pegged at 2,737 children.
  • The inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services says, in fact, the separations began long before the “zero tolerance” policy, and have continued after a June 2018 court order halted them.

Thousands more children were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border than was previously known — but it’s unclear precisely how many, the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general announced Thursday.

The family separations sparked by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy last spring was previously pegged at 2,737 children. In June, a federal judge ordered the administration to halt the separations and reunite the families that had been identified.

But according to the HHS’ office of the inspector general, family separations were occurring long before the June court order, and continued long after it.

“The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” a brief from the inspector general’s office said.

HHS officials told reporters during a conference call on Thursday that it wasn’t clear why so many children had been separated before the “zero tolerance” policy was implemented in April 2018. But they speculated that other Justice Department policies — including an April 2017 memorandum prioritizing immigration prosecutions — may have sparked the uptick.

migrant children shelter

Read more: A pediatrician explains how migrant children can grow severely ill in Border Patrol custody before anyone notices — and what the agency needs to do about it

The proportion of separated children in HHS custody went from 0.3% in late 2016, to 3.6% in the summer of 2017, according to Ann Maxwell, the assistant Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections.

Maxwell added that HHS estimates that the thousands of children who were separated before the June 2018 court order have already been released — but there is no effort underway to identify who those children were, or what happened to them.

The Department of Homeland Security also indicated to HHS that such an effort to identify the children would be “extensive” and would “take resources away from children already in their care,” Maxwell said.

She added that a number of fates could have befallen those children. Some may have been released to a sponsor — usually a close relative or acquaintance — but some may have been deported, or simply “timed out” of HHS custody, meaning they turned 18 and could leave on their own volition.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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