In late June, attorney Sebastian Harley tried to log into a U.S. government web portal to check on a Guatemalan child who had been separated from his parent at the border. He got an error message saying there were too many users.
“I just couldn’t get in,” he said. “The system appeared to be down.”
It was not an isolated incident. From the moment it went online in January of 2014, the computer system designed to track unaccompanied immigrant children and process their release has created headaches for the shelter staff, government employees and others who use it, according to interviews with a dozen current and former users, government reports, and congressional testimony.
Users described a frustrating array of issues, including that the portal could only handle a limited number of users at once without crashing, lost saved data, had poor searchability and required significant manual work for even small updates.
Now that system, operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and known as the UAC portal, has become a key part of the effort to track thousands of children under government supervision who were separated from their parents by immigration officials in recent months. It is being used by government employees, legal service providers, shelter workers and call center operators looking to answer parents’ questions about their children’s whereabouts.
But the system was set up to track unaccompanied minors rather than those separated from their parents by border officials, and it has little ability to interact with the separate database used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track the children’s parents, users said, complicating efforts to easily link family members.
One case worker involved in reunification efforts said she has used the portal regularly over the past eight months, and that “for some weeks during that period, it was making our daily work impossible.”
A Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official said the UAC portal is what call center workers use to locate children in ORR custody. The agency is “constantly making improvements to the portal,” he said, but did not provide further details.
Paige Austin, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she and her colleagues have documented numerous cases this year in which issues with the UAC portal delayed the release of children from ORR custody.
“We definitely observed that issues with the portal were an impediment to finalizing release and referrals,” said Austin.
The portal’s shortcomings are just one of many challenges that have cropped up as the government races against court-imposed deadlines to reunite children and families it has separated at the border.
Federal judge Dana Sabraw ordered the reunifications after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a San Diego lawsuit challenging the government’s policy of separating children from their parents. In his order setting a July 26 deadline for reuniting all separated families, he noted that while the government routinely catalogs detainees’ possessions, it “has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children.”