When the Trump administration instituted its “zero tolerance policy,” which prosecutes immigrants for entering the country illegally and separates parents from their children as a means of deterrence, critics argued it was not simply cruel and immoral but ill-conceived. Less than two weeks after the president used an executive order to formally end the practice of family separation, and days after a federal judge imposed multiple deadlines for reunification, their worst fears have come to fruition.

According to a New York Times report published Thursday, administration officials are scrambling to meet the court’s demands, with as many as 3,000 children’s lives hanging in the balance. Overseeing the gargantuan undertaking is the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has relied on identification bracelets, registration numbers and “careful logs” to track the movements of those detained. But as the Times reveals, the office has been routinely subverted by Customs and Border Protection.

“In hundreds of cases, Customs agents deleted the initial records in which parents and children were listed together as a family with a ‘family identification number,’ according to two officials at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process,” writes the Times’ Caitlin Dickerson. “As a result, the parents and children appeared in federal computers to have no connection to one another.”

For its part, HHS maintains that these measures were, in Dickerson’s words, not part of a “deliberate attempt to obfuscate, but a belief that it made more sense to track cases separately once a group of migrants was no longer in custody as a family unit.” Similarly, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman insists that “[n]ot only is it categorically false that DHS destroyed records, but the opposite is true: DHS personnel has worked hand-in-hand with HHS personnel to share clear data in the most useful formats possible for HHS.”

Nonetheless, multiple HHS officials claim that these records have been trashed or otherwise have disappeared, and that they are vital to identifying family members who are sometimes thousands of miles apart.

Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, appears all too ready to blame anybody but the administration for its self-inflicted crisis. “Any confusion is due to a broken immigration system and court orders,” he told the Times. “It’s not here.”

On Friday, lawyers for the Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California to extend his court-imposed deadlines, arguing that federal DNA testing, along with the necessary research into a parent’s fitness as a legal guardian, could delay the reunification process. Officials had responded to Sabraw’s original order by instructing Border Patrol agents to present migrants seeking asylum with one of two options: “Leave the country with your kids—or leave the country without them,” per an NBC report.

The Trump administration has until July 26 to reunite the children it forcibly separated from their parents. However, for boys and girls 5 and under, of which there are approximately 100, the deadline is this Tuesday.


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