Nearly 300 undocumented immigrant parents may have been separated from their children months before the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy along the border took effect, and officials did not keep a full record of separations, Customs and Border Protection admitted in a letter released Monday.
The separations took place in west Texas in 2017, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
"[F]ollowing an increase in family unit apprehensions in El Paso, US Border Patrol's El Paso Sector undertook a limited effort to pursue prosecutions against all amenable adults, including parents in family units," McAleenan wrote. "CBP records indicate that this led to approximately 283 parents referred for prosecution between July and November 2017."
Bringing criminal charges against parents for unlawful entry required separating them from their children.
A DHS official previously confirmed to CNN that the agency had tested the policy of prosecuting parents caught illegally crossing the border in the El Paso sector.
Last week, the Health and Human Services inspector general found that "thousands" more children had been separated than the government previously reported. According to the report, some separations occurred before the policy was announced in April 2018. The report notes that they've been released from custody, but it does not say who they were released to or if they were reunited with their parents.
The IG report described the challenges faced by the Department of Health and Human Services in identifying which children had been separated from a parent or guardian when apprehended at the US-Mexico border.
In his letter, McAleenan acknowledged that separations had occurred before the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy went into effect and that records were not consistently maintained prior to April of last year.
"First, while separations have occurred historically for decades in the interest of child safety and welfare, the occurrence was limited, as it is currently," McAleenan wrote. "Additionally, prior to April 19, 2018, when the US Border Patrol implemented changes to its e3 Detention Module, separations were not consistently recorded in the US Border Patrol systems of record." He added that changes were later made to "improve record keeping and information sharing on these cases."
Wyden responded to the letter in a statement: "This Orwellian response from Custom and Border Protection does not respond to the pressing questions about the fate of children and their parents. It fails to deliver the data necessary to understand what happened to these kids and their families."