How the Federal Government’s Bad Data Practices Made the Immigrant Family Separation Crisis Worse

August 23, 2018

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The federal government has failed on multiple levels to manage and resolve the ongoing struggle to reunite immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border—at its peak, over 2,000 children were detained, and roughly 500 children were still not with their parents as of last week. The crisis is a tragic example of how bad data handling practices in government can make problems worse. To avoid exacerbating future crises, the federal government needs to make significant progress towards addressing its problems sharing data between agencies, providing access to data, and collecting accurate information.

First, separate federal agencies maintain information about the parents and children, and they are struggling to link the information. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) stated that agencies tracking the children could not immediately produce aggregate numbers of separations of children because “their systems are not integrated.” In addition, the incompatibility of Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) databases led to caseworkers and government employees going through the files of thousands of immigrant children by hand. One case manager for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the division of HHS that watches over the children, reported that she had “nothing to go on” to find a child’s parents. The government has since released a new plan to allow for coordination between relevant federal agencies to unify families, but it still relies on ORR employees contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for obtaining contact information for released parents. A better way to coordinate federal agencies, particularly ones with interrelated responsibilities, is to make their IT systems interoperable by design, thereby allowing agencies to collect data once and share insights both routinely and in times of crisis, while still complying with applicable federal privacy laws.

Second, what limited information the government has organized about immigrant families is difficult to access. Parents lack access to their child’s alien identification number, face long hold times on government phone lines dedicated to helping separated families, and the database HHS uses to track children but which was not created to reunite families, can only handle a small number of users without crashing. Instead of paper forms and call centers, the government should provide social workers and families access to a secure online database with children’s locations, much like aid workers do following natural disasters. If the government had made data easier to access, it could have limited confusion and, at the very least, let families know their child’s location.

Finally, government data, especially in times of crisis, will often be messy. Simply misspelling children’s names in the Unaccompanied Children Portal can make it more difficult to reunite them with their parents. And much of the information the government has provided to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to help unify families is incomplete. The ACLU says over 100 of the addresses the government provided it are useless because they lack necessary details such as street names.

Part of the problem can be addressed by training workers on data handling best practices. For example, better training could have prevented Customs and Border Protection agents from mistakenly deleting hundreds of family identification numbers from government records, thereby making reunification more difficult. To mitigate such problems as misspelled names, agencies need access to advanced search tools that can both search phonetically, to find misspelled names, and search using biometric data, such as using faces, voice prints, or finger prints, to overcome inaccurate data entry.

The struggle to reunite separated families is the result of a myriad of issues, but the federal government’s poor data management made the situation worse. Federal agencies need to continue to update their practices and systems to better collect, share, and make available accurate information. With better designed systems, data can help reunite families in the current immigration crisis and lessons learned from this fiasco can help other agencies avoid similar problems in the future.