Fast Facts

In FY 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported apprehending almost 527,000 noncitizen members of parent-child families along the southwest border.

CBP policies require officers and agents to track any family separations, but we found that separations from June 2018 through March 2019 weren’t accurately tracked—and agents inconsistently recorded details.

We made 9 recommendations to the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. For example, Homeland Security should take steps to ensure accurate tracking of separations, and both departments should collaborate to share information.

U.S. Border Patrol agent scans the area into Mexico

A border patrol agent using binoculars outside

A border patrol agent using binoculars outside

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Data from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) indicate that apprehensions of family unit members (noncitizen children under 18 and their parents or legal guardians) grew from about 22 percent of total southwest border apprehensions in fiscal year 2016 to about 51 percent of such apprehensions during the first two quarters of fiscal year 2019—the most current data available. During this period, CBP data indicated that most apprehensions of family units—about 76 percent—occurred between ports of entry by the U.S. Border Patrol (Border Patrol). With regard to family separations, from April 2018 through March 2019, CBP data indicate it separated at least 2,700 children from their parents, processing them as unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and transferring them to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Number of Southwest Border Apprehensions and Family Unit Member Apprehensions, Fiscal Year 2016 through the Second Quarter of Fiscal Year 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Number of Southwest Border Apprehensions and Family Unit Member Apprehensions, Fiscal Year 2016 through the Second Quarter of Fiscal Year 2019

Notes: GAO used “number of apprehensions” rather than “number of family unit members apprehended” as the unit of analysis because an individual may have been apprehended multiple times in the same year. GAO determined that OFO did not have a unique identifier for approximately 11 percent of all of its apprehension records during the period of the review. Hence, GAO could not independently confirm these records as reliable and excluded them from the analysis. Numbers are also rounded.

CBP's October 2015 National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search defines a “family unit” to include one or more non-U.S. citizen juveniles accompanied by their parent(s) or legal guardian(s).

CBP developed some policies and procedures for processing family units but does not have sufficient controls to ensure effective implementation. For example, CBP policy requires that Border Patrol agents and officers track apprehended family unit members and, if applicable, subsequent family separations in agency data systems. GAO's analysis of Border Patrol documents and data indicates that its agents have not accurately and consistently recorded family units and separations. Specifically, GAO examined a nongeneralizable sample of 40 HHS records for children involved in family separations between June 2018 and March 2019 and matched them to Border Patrol apprehensions data for these children. GAO found Border Patrol did not initially record 14 of the 40 children as a member of a family unit (linked to a parent's record) per Border Patrol policy, and thus did not record their subsequent family separation. GAO found an additional 10 children among the 40 whose family separations were not documented in Border Patrol's data system as required by CBP policy during this period. Border Patrol officials were unsure of the extent of these problems, and stated that, among other things, data-entry errors may have arisen due to demands on agents as the number of family unit apprehensions increased. Thus, it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated family unit members in its data system. Further, Border Patrol agents inconsistently recorded information about the reasons for and circumstances surrounding family separations on required forms. Developing and implementing additional controls would help Border Patrol maintain complete and accurate information on all family separations.

DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is, among other things, responsible for detaining and removing those family units apprehended by CBP. ICE officers are to determine whether to accept or deny a referral of a family unit from CBP for detention in one of ICE's family residential centers, release family unit members into the interior of the United States, or remove family unit members (who are subject to final orders of removal) from the United States. ICE has procedures for processing and releasing family units from ICE custody. However, with regard to family unit separations, ICE relies on a manual process to track separations that occur in ICE custody (generally at one of ICE's family residential centers) and does not systematically record this information in its data system. Without a mechanism to do so, ICE does not have reasonable assurance that parents whom ICE separated from their children and are subject to removal are able to make arrangements for their children, including being removed with them, as provided in ICE's policy for detained parents.

In 2018, DHS and HHS developed written interagency agreements regarding UAC. However, DHS and HHS officials stated they have not resolved long-standing differences in opinion about how and what information agencies are to share related to the care and placement of those children, including those referred to HHS after a family separation. GAO found that DHS has not consistently provided information and documents to HHS as specified in interagency agreements. HHS officials also identified additional information they need from DHS, about those adults apprehended with children and later separated, to inform their decisions about placing children with sponsors and reunifying separated families, when necessary. Increased collaboration between DHS and HHS about information sharing would better position HHS to make informed and timely decisions for UAC.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2019, CBP reported apprehending more than 527,000 noncitizen family unit members at or between U.S. ports of entry along the southwest border—a 227 percent increase over fiscal year 2018. In April 2018, the U.S. Attorney General issued a memo on criminal prosecutions of immigration offenses, which DHS officials said led to an increase in family separations.

GAO was asked to review issues related to DHS's processing of family units. This report examines (1) CBP data on apprehended family unit members; the extent to which (2) CBP and (3) ICE developed and implemented policies and procedures for processing family units; and (4) how DHS and HHS share information about UAC. GAO analyzed record-level DHS and HHS data and documents; interviewed DHS and HHS officials; and visited DHS locations in California and Texas where CBP apprehensions of family units increased in 2017.

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Recommendations

GAO is making eight recommendations to DHS and one to HHS. Among them, CBP should develop and implement additional controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents accurately record family unit separations in data systems. GAO also recommends that ICE systematically track in its data system the family units ICE separates. Further, DHS and HHS should collaborate about information sharing for UAC. DHS and HHS concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should issue updated Border Patrol and OFO training materials that reflect the correct definition of a family unit and guidance for recording that information. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In February 2020, we reported that, since October 2015, some U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) documents have included inconsistent guidance on how Border Patrol agents and Office of Field Operations (OFO) officers are to define a family unit for processing purposes. Therefore, we recommended that CBP issue updated Border Patrol and OFO training materials that reflect the correct definition of a family unit and guidance for recording that information. Regarding Border Patrol, in October 2020, the Border Patrol academy updated its training materials for new agents to include the correct definition of a family unit, consistent with CBP policy. Regarding OFO, in August 2020, OFO provided documentation indicating that it had updated its post-academy training materials with the correct definition of a family unit; officials reported that the revised materials were forwarded to the OFO field training coordinators. Issuing updated training materials that reflect CBP policy should help CBP ensure that Border Patrol agents and OFO officers are processing family units appropriately.
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should provide written guidance to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers about what narrative information should be recorded on the child's and the accompanying adult's Forms I-213 to document cases in which CBP determines that a parent–child relationship may be invalid. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In August 2020, U.S. Border Patrol sent a memo to all sectors detailing the steps that agents must take when completing Forms I-213 when a family unit has been judged to be invalid. These steps include ensuring that the forms for the parents and children contain the same narrative information to justify the separation. In October 2020, OFO confirmed that it had updated its data management system to automatically populate the family information on the I-213s for each family member. This information includes names, dates of birth, country of citizenship, role in the family, reasons for separation, and the presence of any fraud. Incorporating this guidance will help better ensure that the events are well-documented to support such assessments of potentially invalid family units, in accordance with CBP policy. Further, this could help ensure that officials have relevant details they need to make decisions for adults and children in their custody, including reuniting valid family units, where appropriate, before adults are removed from the United States.
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should develop and implement additional controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents accurately record family unit separations in its data system. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
We reported that U.S Border Patrol (Border Patrol) and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement data indicated that Border Patrol agents had not accurately and consistently recorded family separations in its data system. Among the records we reviewed, we identified cases in which agents had not documented the family separation in Border Patrol's data system, as required. Specifically, agents processed the parents and children together with a family unit number, but did not take the necessary steps in the data system to separate them and document the reason why the separation occurred. Border Patrol officials stated that data entry errors may have grown with increased processing demands and strained resources faced by Border Patrol as the volume of family units apprehended increased in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. We recommended that U.S. Customs and Border Protection develop and implement additional controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents accurately record family unit separations in its data system. In response, Border Patrol issued memoranda in January 2020 and March 2021 to highlight the importance of data integrity and reiterate requirements for agents when documenting family unit separations in the relevant data system. In addition, Border Patrol added certain controls to its data system to better ensure that agents processed family units accurately and consistently. For example, Border Patrol added an alert in its data system about the potential need to link records of individuals' with similar names who were apprehended in a group, including those records for unaccompanied children. Developing and implementing such controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents accurately record family separations in the data system, consistent with CBP and Border Patrol policies, should better enable Border Patrol to maintain complete and accurate information on all family separations.
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should update Border Patrol's and OFO's data systems to ensure data captured on family unit separation reasons clearly align with CBP policy. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
We reported that the CBP Commissioner issued a memorandum to the Chief of the Border Patrol and to the Executive Assistant Commissioner of OFO on June 27, 2018, to provide direction on complying with the June 26, 2018, federal court order in Ms. L. v. ICE to include potential reasons that may warrant continued family separations. Although Border Patrol and OFO data systems allowed agents and officers to select among options to indicate the reason for a family separation, we reported that the reasons available in the systems did not fully align with CBP's June 2018 memorandum. As a result, we recommended that the CBP Commissioner update Border Patrol's and OFO's data systems to ensure data captured on family unit separation reasons clearly align with CBP policy. In response, Border Patrol issued a memorandum in January 2020 updating the June 2018 guidance to include additional separations reasons. Border Patrol also updated its data system in January 2020 to capture the separation reasons outlined in CBP's June 2018 and Border Patrol's January 2020 memoranda. Regarding OFO's data system, in January 2021, OFO issued a muster announcing updates to its system regarding the family unit separation reasons as outlined in CBP's June 2018 policy memorandum and a muster on separation reasons as of April 29, 2019. Updating Border Patrol's and OFO's data systems to ensure that options for separation reasons align with CBP policy should help ensure that CBP makes decisions about family separations in accordance with CBP policy and that data CBP collects reflects that.
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should develop and implement additional controls to ensure that Border Patrol agents include a narrative description of a family unit separation on the parent's / legal guardian's and child's Forms I-213, including the reason for the separation. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
We reported Border Patrol agents were not consistently recording detailed information about family separations on the Form I-213 -the official record of the apprehension . As a result, we recommended that CBP developed additional internal controls to ensure that the I-213s included a narrative description of the separation, including the separation reason. In response, in January 2020, the Chief of the Border Patrol issued a memorandum to all sectors with guidance on family unit separations, which noted that all cases of family separations by Border Patrol are to be documented in its case management system and clearly articulated in the narrative for each family member. In August 2020 and March 2021, Border Patrol issued additional notices to all sectors reiterating that the narratives on the Form I-213 of the parents/legal guardians and children must include the reason for separation. To help ensure that all information about members of separated family units is included on the I-213, Border Patrol updated its data system to automatically place a bold-type notification on the front page of the I-213, near the agent signature block, annotating that the individual is a member of a separated family unit. In March 2021, Border Patrol issued a memorandum to all sectors announcing the addition of this bold-type notification to the I-213, and explaining its purpose. This memorandum also states that the I-213s for family unit members should include the reason for the separation and the name and official authorizing the separation. Such controls should help ensure that Border Patrol agents are capturing complete information about the family unit separation and the separation reason on the official record of the apprehension.
United States Customs and Border Protection The CBP Commissioner should provide guidance to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers on the narrative information they are to include about family unit separation events on the parent's / legal guardian's and child's Forms I-213. (Recommendation 6)
Closed - Implemented
We reported that CBP had not issued guidance on what descriptive details surrounding family separations agents and officers are to record on the Form I-213. As a result, we recommended that CBP provide such guidance to ensure key details about family unit separations are included on the official record of the apprehension. Regarding Border Patrol, in response, the Chief of the Border Patrol issued a memorandum in January 2020 to all sectors with guidance on family unit separations, which noted that all cases of family separations by Border Patrol are to be documented in its case management system and clearly articulated in the narrative for each family member. In addition, the memorandum notes that the narrative on the I-213 must include a description of the factors supporting the separation decision. In March 2021, Border Patrol issued a memorandum to all sectors, which states that the I-213s for family unit members should include the reason for the separation, the name and official authorizing the separation, and the factors supporting the separation decision. Regarding OFO, in response, OFO updated its data management system to automatically populate the family information on the I-213s for each family member. This information includes each family member's biographic information, the reasons for the family separation, and each family member's role in the family. In January 2021, OFO issued a muster that informed field offices about the pre-population in the narrative section of the I-213. Such steps should help ensure that Border Patrol agents and OFO officers are including key details about family separation events on the parent's and child's Forms I-213.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The ICE Director should develop and implement a mechanism to systematically track in its data system the family units ICE separates. (Recommendation 7)
Closed - Implemented
In February 2020, we reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) relied on a manual process to track family unit separations that occur in ICE custody. Therefore, we recommended that ICE develop and implement a mechanism to systematically track in its data system the family units ICE separates. In response to this recommendation, ICE provided documentation indicating that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations deployed a new module in its data system in October 2020 that allows its users to create and manage records on family units. In particular, the new module collects, tracks, and stores data on family units and other members of family groups. According to ICE documentation, users are also able to create family units, track family members, designate familial relationships amongst family members, and annotate a family separation and reunification. Having a mechanism in its data system to systematically track the family units it separates should help ICE ensure that separated parents who are subject to removal are able to make arrangements for their minor child or children (including being removed with them), as provided in ICE policy.
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Homeland Security, jointly with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, should collaborate to address information sharing gaps identified in this report to ensure that ORR receives information needed to make decisions for UAC, including those apprehended with an adult. (Recommendation 8)
Open
In November 2020, DHS officials told us that, in coordination with HHS and other agencies, DHS is developing a Unified Immigration Portal (UIP) to enable a more complete understanding of an individual's journey through the immigration system. Specifically, the UIP is intended to be a technological platform where authorized U.S. government users can access relevant immigration-related data from multiple agencies through a single interface. DHS officials told us in February 2021 that the portal is to provide real time data to track unaccompanied children from the time of apprehension to their referral and placement in HHS-funded shelters. In addition, the portal is to automatically share their biographic information across the relevant U.S. agencies to help eliminated duplicate data entry and streamline the referral and placement process. In addition, HHS officials told us that HHS is developing a new data system to automate the referral process, which will be integrated with the portal. By connecting this new system to DHS's portal, HHS foresees that it will be able to retrieve data regarding a child's status in a more automated manner. DHS officials said they plan to meet regularly with HHS to coordinate their efforts; the departments also signed a memorandum of agreement on the matter in March 2021. As of November 2021, DHS officials stated that the department is seeking to develop a comprehensive, enterprise-wide set of recommendations to respond to outstanding GAO recommendations around family data collection and sharing across the enterprise and interagency (see GAO-15-521 and GAO-20-274). DHS expects to complete these efforts June 30, 2022. To fully address this recommendation, DHS and HHS should collaborate to address the information-sharing gaps identified in our report to ensure that ORR receives information needed to make decisions for unaccompanied children, including those apprehended with an adult.
Department of Health and Human Services
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Health and Human Services, jointly with the Secretary of Homeland Security, should collaborate to address information sharing gaps identified in this report to ensure that ORR receives information needed to make decisions for UAC, including those apprehended with an adult. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In November 2020, DHS officials told us that, in coordination with HHS and other agencies, DHS is developing a Unified Immigration Portal (UIP) to enable a more complete understanding of an individual's journey throughout the immigration system. Specifically, the UIP is intended to be a technological platform where authorized U.S. government users can access relevant immigration-related data from multiple agencies through a single interface. DHS officials told us in February 2021 that the portal is to provide real time data to track unaccompanied children from the time of apprehension to their referral and placement in HHS-funded shelters. In addition, the portal is to automatically share their biographic information across relevant U.S. agencies to help eliminate duplicate data entry and streamline the referral and placement process. In addition, HHS officials told us that HHS is developing a new data system to automate the referral process, which will be integrated with the portal. By connecting this new system to DHS's portal, HHS foresees that it will be able to retrieve data regarding a child's status in a more automated manner. DHS officials said they plan to meet regularly with HHS to coordinate their efforts; the departments also signed a memorandum of agreement on the matter in March 2021. DHS and HHS reported that they would provide an update on the status of their efforts by September 2021. To fully address the recommendation, DHS and HHS should collaborate to address information sharing gaps identified in our report to ensure that ORR receives information needed to make decisions for unaccompanied children, including those apprehended with an adults.

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