Hundreds of migrant children were illegally kept in holding cells for days, DHS watchdog reports

Protest signs about detained migrant children.
(Image credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The Trump administration's policy of separating migrant children from their families was generally panned on ethical and humanitarian grounds — but a new report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) finds it was an exemplar of government incompetence, too.

More than 800 children were illegally kept in holding cells longer than the 72 hours permitted by court order, reports The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the document. One child was held in this manner for 25 days. Some of these holding cell facilities, intended for short-term use, had no beds or showers.

DHS also had no real system to keep track of children too young to speak to identify themselves or their parents. "Border Patrol does not provide pre-verbal children with wrist bracelets or other means of identification," the report says, "nor does Border Patrol fingerprint or photograph most children during processing to ensure that they can be easily linked with the proper file."

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Technological failings were serious, too. Federal computer systems often cannot communicate with one another, so detained children's personal information was transferred via emailed Microsoft Word documents. "Each step of this manual process is vulnerable to human error," the DHS OIG says, "increasing the risk that a child could become lost in the system."

Worse yet, DHS claimed in June to have made a "central database" of separated children so they could be easily reunited with their families. The OIG report found no such database exists.

Finally, the OIG found border agents turned away migrants who sought asylum at legal entrances. In some cases, this prompted the would-be asylum-seekers to enter the U.S. illegally instead.

More than 400 children remained separated from their families as of early September.

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