Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS's Processes for Apprehended Family Members

GAO-20-274 Published: Feb 19, 2020. Publicly Released: Mar 18, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Homeland Security component agencies collect information on noncitizen family members who are apprehended together at the southwest border. Each component collects the information it needs, but does not always consider the information needed by other DHS components.

Without identifying and sharing this information, DHS risks removing individuals from the country who may be eligible for relief or protection based on their family relationships.

We made 4 recommendations, including linking and sharing collected information on all family members apprehended together so that all DHS components have access to it.

A uniformed agent with a pair of binoculars looks out over a creek

A uniformed agent with a pair of binoculars looks out over a creek

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) processes to identify, collect, document, and share information about family members apprehended at the southwest border are fragmented. DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehends family members and determines how information about each individual—and his or her relationship to other family members—will be collected and documented. Other DHS components, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), use information collected at the time of apprehension to inform how those who are members of a family, including children, will proceed through immigration proceedings. Family members apprehended at the border and placed into expedited removal that indicate an intention to apply for asylum, or a fear of persecution or torture or fear of return to their home country, are referred to DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a credible fear screening. However,

DHS has not identified the information its components collectively need about apprehended family members. Each DHS component collects information to meet its own operational needs, and does not consider the information needs of other components. For example, the information about family members that CBP needs differs from the information about family members that USCIS needs. CBP officials told us they would not generally identify spouses and children age 18 to 21 apprehended with a parent as family members, although USCIS's definition of a dependent for credible fear screening purposes includes spouses and unmarried children under age 21.

CBP collects information about certain family members for its operational purposes, but does not collect and document information at the time of apprehension that other DHS components may later need. Specifically, CBP collects and documents information about parents and their children under age 18 who are apprehended together. However, consistent with regulation, USCIS policy is to include any dependents who arrived concurrently with the principal applicant, such as a spouse or unmarried child under age 21, on a principal applicant's positive credible fear determination if the dependent wants to be included. According to USCIS and ICE officials, it can be difficult to identify spouses and children age 18 to 21 because CBP does not regularly document such family relationships.

DHS does not have a mechanism to link the records of family members apprehended together across its components that need this information. As a result, DHS components may not have access to all the information about family members they need to make effective operational decisions.

Because DHS has not identified the information all of its components collectively need to process family members apprehended at the border, collected and documented that information at the time of apprehension, and evaluated options to share that information across components, consistent with leading practices in collaboration, DHS risks removing individuals from the United States who may have been eligible for relief or protection based on their family relationship.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2019, CBP reported apprehending more than 527,000 noncitizen family unit members (children under 18 and their parents or legal guardians) at or between U.S. ports of entry along the southwest border—a 227 percent increase over fiscal year 2018. GAO was asked to review issues related to families—including family units—arriving at the southwest border.

This report examines the extent to which DHS has identified, collected, documented, and shared information its components need to inform processes for family members apprehended at the border. GAO analyzed DHS documents; interviewed DHS officials; and visited DHS locations in Arizona, California and Texas, where CBP apprehensions of family units increased in 2017. GAO compared the information gathered with leading practices in collaboration to evaluate DHS components' processes for apprehended family members.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations to DHS, including that DHS identify the information its components collectively need to process family members apprehended together, collect and document that information at the time of apprehension, and evaluate options for developing a unique identifier shared across DHS's data systems to link family members apprehended together. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Homeland Security should identify the information about family members apprehended together that its components collectively need to process those family members and communicate that information to its components. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
According to DHS, in June 2020, DHS's Office of Immigration Statistics launched a Family Status Data Standards Community of Interest (COI) under the purview of the DHS Immigration Data Integration Initiative. In August 2020, DHS reported that the Family Status COI includes subject matter experts and data system managers from DHS components, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review. The COI's mandate includes drafting common DHS-wide and interagency data standards (common codes, common definitions, common formats) for all topics related to family status, including codes to identify the reasons for family separation, members apprehended together, and unaccompanied children. As of November 2021, DHS officials stated that the COI established what information gaps exist and possible solutions to close the gaps, which the Office of Immigration Statistics plans to summarize in a report. According to DHS officials, the Office of Immigration Statistics will then present the possible solutions and engage with senior leaders to determine whether it is feasible for CBP to gather the information requested. DHS expects to complete these actions by September 30, 2022. Identifying and communicating department-wide information needs with respect to family members who have been apprehended together should help provide DHS with greater assurance that its components are identifying all individuals who may be eligible for relief from removal from the United States based on their family relationships.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that, at the time of apprehension, CBP collects the information that DHS components collectively need to process family members apprehended together. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
In commenting on a draft of our report, DHS reported that its Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) will work with relevant components and offices to ensure all required information is collected at the time of apprehension on the Form I-213 when processing family members apprehended together. In March 2021, CBP, ICE, and HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) signed a Memorandum of Agreement that lays out information sharing in matters relating to noncitizen unaccompanied children. As of July 2021, CBP reported that CBP continues to collaborate across DHS components and with ORR. Additionally, to help address our first recommendation, CBP reported that OIS began a series of meetings with subject matter experts across DHS and HHS, held every three weeks, to discuss agency information-sharing needs. CBP is represented in these meetings by subject matter experts from both the Office of Field Operations and U.S. Border Patrol. As of January 2022, CBP reported that component agencies continue to collaborate to identify information needs for family members apprehended together. In April 2022, CBP reported that it modified its data systems to display more information, including family role, in the I-213 narrative field for family members apprehended with a child under age 18. Other agencies who need this data can access it. Specifically, ICE and USCIS can see all family groups when searching their systems for specific people and ORR can view unaccompanied children and other members of the family unit apprehended or encountered with the child. In September 2022, CBP reported that the Office of Field Operations has implemented an automated mechanism to link data on other family members apprehended together, including adult unmarried children (between the ages of 18 and 21) and spouses. Further, the Office of Field Operations has provided guidance to its officers requiring that they collect information on the linkages between these family members apprehended together. However, there is no such mechanism available in Border Patrol's data system. As a result, Border Patrol intends to assess whether manually collecting information on family role for those family members apprehended together is operationally feasible, with a goal of Border Patrol automating this function by September 2023.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that CBP documents the information that DHS components collectively need to process family members apprehended together on the Form I-213. (Recommendation 3)
Open – Partially Addressed
In commenting on a draft of our report, DHS reported that, upon implementation of the steps the department plans to take in response to our second recommendation, CBP will issue guidance to the field to ensure that CBP agents and officers document the information that DHS components collectively need to process family members. As of July 2021, as mentioned above in Recommendation 2, CBP reported that its subject matter experts are participating in joint DHS and HHS agency meetings, held every three weeks. As of January 2022, DHS reported that component agencies continue to collaborate to identify and standardize information collected on family members apprehended together. According to DHS, the Community of Interest is working on a plan to provide CBP with a course of action to ensure agents and officers document the required information on the Form I-213. In April 2022, CBP reported that it modified its data systems to display more information, including family role, in the I-213 narrative field for family members apprehended with a child under age 18. Further, CBP reported that it was working on a mechanism to link data on other family members apprehended together, including spouses and adult unmarried children (between the ages of 18 and 21). In September 2022, CBP reported that the Office of Field Operations has implemented this mechanism, which automatically links data for family members encountered together. However, that there is no such mechanism available in Border Patrol's data system. As a result, Border Patrol intends to assess whether manually collecting information to link family members apprehended together is operationally feasible, with a goal of automating Border Patrol's process to document such linkages by September 2023.
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Homeland Security should evaluate options for developing a unique identifier shared across DHS components' data systems to link family members apprehended together. (Recommendation 4)
Open – Partially Addressed
In commenting on a draft of our report, DHS reported that its Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) plans to work with relevant components to develop a unique shared identifier linking family members apprehended together. According to DHS, DHS OIS launched the Family Status Community of Interest (COI) in June 2020, and the COI has since established a bi-weekly meeting schedule. The COI's initial focus is on standard codes describing the reasons for family separations. Upon completing the family separation reason standard, DHS reported that the COI will prioritize developing common codes to identify family members apprehended together. As of November 2021, these efforts are ongoing. DHS officials stated they expect the department to complete these efforts by September 30, 2022. Evaluating options for developing a shared unique family member identifier across components that would allow each component access to certain information about family members apprehended together would help bridge the information gaps about family relationships between components caused by DHS's fragmented data systems.

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