It’s time for a formal investigation into whether or not the administration is actually capable of reuniting the roughly 2,000 migrant families it forcibly separated in May and June, Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Inspectors General (OIG) of the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Friday.
The letter, signed by more than 100 House Democrats, calls on DHS and HHS to immediately launch parallel investigations to establish what records the agencies, which are tasked with enforcing President Donald Trump’s family separation policy, have kept. It is almost certain to trigger a rapid, focused inquiry from offices that have full, unfettered access to the entire staffs and records of the agencies they investigate.
Those inquiries will differ from typical OIG investigations that seek to prove or refute a specific allegation of wrongdoing. The goal in this instance is to figure out what exactly HHS and DHS staff did or did not do to make family reuniting possible.
The letter asks the two independent investigative offices to acknowledge that they’ve begun investigations within the next week.
Fears have swirled for weeks that the administration might have no intention of even trying to reconnect the families — and that, even if they are willing to try, officials may not have done the basic record-keeping required to make such reunions possible.
News reports from detention facilities suggest parents whose children were taken from them were not given case numbers to refer to in future, let alone any hard information on where their child would be. A phone number that DHS staff told reporters and parents was a specialized hotline to help detainees find their stolen children was actually just the main number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) inside HHS. Kids have shown up in far-flung locales, from psych wards to notoriously brutal jailhouses to foster systems, with little clarity about who they are or where they came from.
The White House’s six-week experiment splitting up families as a deterrent to other potential migrants has been slapdash from the beginning. Senior administration officials seemed surprised by the volume and ferocity of pushback their choices engendered. The White House messaging on why exactly it was doing what it was doing shifted by the hour for weeks until Trump finally backed down on Wednesday — and even then, DHS and DOJ seemed to reach different interpretations of his new Executive Order differently.
“A New York Times article reported that Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez was deported without her son. ‘An immigration officer handed her a handwritten note on a pink slip of paper with the words, ‘Call Shelter Son’ and a telephone number. …[but] she was deported before she could use it,'” the letter from Rep. Luis Correa (D-CA) and 115 co-signers read. “This is an example of what appears to be a lack of quality recordkeeping to reunite parents with their children.”
A spokeswoman for the HHS OIG told ThinkProgress their office had not yet received the letter, but that it is taking such concerns seriously.
“We understand the gravity of this situation. This is a significant priority to our agency. And we will respond in a timely manner,” spokeswoman Tesia Williams said. She also noted that the office is continuing to investigate conditions inside the child migrant detention facilities that are run by ORR.
Williams’ office has no jurisdiction over the people who staffed the front lines in Trump’s effort to scare migrants from coming north by breaking up their families, however — the dirty work was done by DHS agencies. The public affairs staff for the DHS OIG were not in the office when ThinkProgress called to ask about Friday’s request from lawmakers and did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Trump administration is famously willing to inject political expediency into investigations and bureaucratic processes all across the federal landscape. Though Inspectors General are statutorily independent of their agencies and empowered to access all records, facilities, and staffers as they see fit, the practical independence of such investigations is guaranteed as much by the individual leaders of these offices as anything else.
Inspectors General are meant to be entirely independent from both institutional culture and political influence, said Andrew Bakaj, a former official in the Pentagon and CIA OIGs who now runs the Compass Rose Legal Group in Washington, D.C. That independence mostly relies on the individual leaders of the offices, he said, noting that DHS currently has only an acting Inspector General.
“It has to do with the personality of the IG, if they have a strong enough constitution to be able to not be swayed and to do what they’re obligated to do,” said Bakaj. “They need to let the facts lead the way and not let opinion drive how the analysis is conducted. That’s why Inspectors General are unpopular — it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you uncover.”
The Dems’ decision to ask for OIG investigations via letter rather than to badger their Republican colleagues to use Congress’ own investigative purview here is also likely to deliver better, clearer information, Bakaj said — albeit much more slowly.
“When Congress asks people to testify and come to the Hill, they have to be honest and candid but they’re going to tell Congress what is given to them by the agency,” he said. “The IG has access to the agency, period. They can walk in and demand interviews, demand documents [and] employees are obligated to cooperate.”
The resulting process can take months and be frustratingly opaque to the public. The slower and quieter the investigation, Bakaj said, the more likely it is that it’s being conducted thoroughly and responsibly.
Lawmakers asked the OIGs in their letter this week to pursue five specific questions: How exactly are the departments keeping records on the separated families, how quickly would they be able to reunite families on average, what exactly does that process look like, how does it differ for families where the parent has already been deported while the children remain in U.S. custody, and are any children missing from the departments’ records such that they could not be reunited at all?
The text of the letter further clarifies exactly what information the lawmakers are seeking. Upon hearing the specific text of the questions, Bakaj said they were well crafted to deliver the fastest possible response from investigators — especially given the sheer number of people making the request.
“The internal review will be conducted a lot more expeditiously when you have so many members of congress,” he said. “And the good thing about these questions is they are narrow and specific. It’ll be easy enough to scope out what they have to do. Hopefully it means they’ll be able to get an answer in a more timely manner.”