Fixing family separation policy will be a tough job
A Honduran family of six live in a migrant camp, and have waited months for their first U.S. Immigration Court hearing. Ciudad Jaurez, Mexico, Aug. 2019. Photo by Al Neal

“I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” Former-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, May 7, 2018. 

Donald J. Trump, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other top Department of Justice officials pushed forward with a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in 2018, fully aware that doing so would forcibly split up families. The DOJ and Trump administration was ill-prepared for the impact their policy would have, according to the recent 93-page report by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General.

The Trump Administration policy, in effect from April to June 2018, resulted in over 5,000 family separations, with hundreds of children still separated from the parents, and no knowledge of their current whereabouts. 

And Session’s DOJ was the “driving force” in pushing the Department of Homeland Security to refer all adults detained for attempting to enter the U.S. illegally with children to be prosecuted by the DOJ.

“The Department Did Not Effectively Plan for or Coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department Health and Human Services About the Impact that Family Unit Adult Prosecutions Under the Zero Tolerance Policy Would Have on Children, Despite Senior Leaders’ Awareness that It Would Result in the Separation of Children,” concluded the OIG’s report.

In the report, Gene Hamilton, Counselor to the Attorney General, said Sessions was aware at the time he announced the “zero-tolerance policy that the prosecution of apprehended “family units” would result in child separation. Hamilton also said the policy was put in place after complaints by Trump and others at the White House involved in carrying out his immigration agenda.

“The attorney general was aware of White House desires for further action related to combating illegal immigration,” the report quotes Hamilton’s responses to questions about the program’s development.

Hamilton said Sessions “perceived a need to take quick action” from Trump, and following a meeting at the White House, April 3, 2018, Sessions “directed me (Hamilton) to write the Zero Tolerance memorandum…The AG directed the creation of the memo that would accomplish his goal of prosecuting as many cases as possible at the border.”

Rod J. Rosenstein, former deputy attorney general involved with the “zero-tolerance” policy, released a statement shortly after the report’s release, Thursday, Jan. 14, saying:

“Since leaving the department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero-tolerance immigration policy, it was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”

For Rosenstein, and other former DOJ officials involved in this immigration policy travesty, regret is easy to express after the fact, however, it doesn’t excuse their role—there were moments to speak up against it and stand firm on moral ground.

Notes from a May 11, 2018 meeting between federal prosecutors along the southwestern border and Sessions, detailed in the OIG report, recorded Session’s telling prosecutors that “we need to take away children; if (they) care about kids don’t bring them in; (we) won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”

The inspector general’s report comes almost two and a half years after the DOJ’s 2018 “zero-tolerance” policy led to the long-term separation of almost 3,000 children, many of them young, and some ill.

Hundreds remain separated due to the Trump administration quick deportation efforts, or because they could no longer locate them.

“The barbaric family separation practice was immoral and illegal,” said Lee Gelernt, chief attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the policy. “At a minimum, Justice Department lawyers should have known the latter. This new report shows just how far the Trump administration was willing to go to destroy these families. Just when you think the Trump administration can’t sink any lower, it does.”

Elected Democrats on Capitol hill, after reading the report, said they would hold Trump administration officials to account long after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office, Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents due to the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Migrant/Refugee center, Brownsville, Tx., July 2019. Photo by Al Neal.

“Those who planned and executed the zero-tolerance policy will have to live with the knowledge that their cruelty and cowardice are responsible for the scars these children will carry for the rest of their lives,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who promised hearings once he takes the role of Judiciary Committee chairman “They must be held accountable for the fundamental human rights violations that they perpetrated.”

As expected, Trump has repeatedly tried to shift blame for his administration’s failed immigration policy by falsely blaming Democrats and former President Barrack Obama. And while the OIG report does not issue a conclusive finding that sole responsibility lies with the Trump administration, it does say the “review found that the Department’s single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact that prosecution of family unit adults and family separations would have on children traveling with them and the government’s ability to later reunite the children with their parents.”

But the report and supplemental documents implicate the Trump White House.

President-elect Biden has promised to create a task force to help reunite those children still separated from their parents, as part of his sweeping immigration bill submitted to Congress on Day One of his administration. The plan will also include an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.