Report: US knew of problems family separation would cause

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FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2018, file photo, an asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway after arriving from an immigration detention center to a shelter in San Diego. A federal judge on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, urged the Trump administration to do more to help court-appointed researchers find hundreds of parents who were separated from their children after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border beginning in 2017. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

HOUSTON – Months before the Trump administration separated thousands of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, a “pilot program” in Texas left child-welfare officials scrambling to find empty beds for babies taken from their parents in a preview of bigger problems to come, according to a report released Thursday by congressional Democrats.

Documents in the report suggest Health and Human Services officials weren't told by the Department of Homeland Security why shelters were receiving more children taken from their parents in late 2017. It has since been revealed that DHS was operating a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, that prosecuted parents for crossing the border illegally and took their children away to HHS shelters.

“We had a shortage last night of beds for babies,” Jonathan White, a top HHS official, wrote in a Nov. 11, 2017, email. He added: “Overall, infant placements seem to be climbing over recent weeks, and we think that’s due to more separations from mothers by CBP.”

The problems revealed by the pilot program presaged what would happen months later: government employees caring for babies and young children in so-called tender age shelters and many parents being deported without their kids. The consequences linger today: Lawyers working to reunite immigrant families have said they can’t reach the deported parents of 545 children who were separated as early as July 2017.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee released the report Thursday with emails obtained from government agencies. It comes shortly before Election Day as Democrats campaign against the Trump administration's family separations, which stirred widespread outcry as part of its “zero tolerance" crackdown on illegal border crossings.

Democrat Joe Biden announced Thursday that he would form a task force if elected to reunite still-separated families.

The report outlines discussions since the start of the Trump administration of family separation as a law enforcement tactic. In March 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told CNN that the government was considering taking children from their families and placing them in government-licensed shelters while the parents were prosecuted.

That July, Customs and Border Protection agents began separating families in what was later called a pilot program, according to a review by the Health and Human Services inspector general.