An inspector general confirmed Thursday that the Justice Department knew that children would be separated from parents under the administration’s ill-fated zero tolerance border policy, yet found that officials were totally unprepared to deal with the separations.
Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general, said pressure for the policy came from the very top of the department. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally ordered prosecutors along the border to carry out the policy and put pressure on the Homeland Security Department to comply.
“We need to take away children,” Mr. Sessions said, according to notes one department employee took during a conference call in May 2018. “If [they] care about kids, don’t bring them in.”
He knew that bringing criminal charges against the parents would separate them from their children while their cases moved through the system. But neither he nor the rest of the administration was prepared to reunite the families at the end of the process, the review found.
“The department’s singleminded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful consideration of the impact family separations would have on the children and the government’s ability to later reunite the children with their families,” Mr. Horowitz said.
More than 3,000 children were separated while the policy was in effect from May 5 to June 20. Many children remain separated, some by parents’ agreements and others involuntarily.
The report marks a final spanking over the 2018 policy, which has become a deep and ongoing embarrassment for the president’s immigration policy.
Mr. Sessions’ intent with the policy was to try to head off the caravans of families that were beginning to pour across the border in 2018. The families, and the smugglers who shepherded them north, realized that showing up with a child often meant quick release into the country, while showing up as an adult without children usually meant speedy deportation.
The “zero tolerance” policy to counter this pushed Homeland Security to submit more parents for prosecution for illegal entry and ordered prosecutors to pursue those cases. Prosecutions rose from less than 1 in 5 to about half of family cases, Homeland Security officials have said.
But the separations proved to be disastrous collateral damage.
For years, debate has raged over how intended those separations were. The new report seems to settle that.
Three officials — the deputy attorney general, Mr. Sessions’ chief of staff and his counselor — all said he was aware that the result would be separated children.
“I think the answer is yes,” then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told investigators. “I think everybody understood that what it meant was we are going to prosecute without — everybody who committed a crime without regard [to] whether they brought a child.”
The children were separated because the federal prison system has no family facilities. When a parent was detained, the child had to be placed elsewhere.
The children were deemed unaccompanied juvenile migrants, which under U.S. policy meant they were turned over to the Health and Human Services Department.
Mr. Sessions and his team kept HHS in the dark about the zero tolerance policy, forcing both departments to play catch-up once children started arriving.
HHS had plenty of experience dealing with tens of thousands of child migrants who showed up at the border on their own, without parents. Connecting them with parents who also had crossed the border was a new task, though, and several audits found that the government didn’t even have systems to match the children with their parents in records.
“The government was not prepared to deal with” family separations, Mr. Rosenstein told the inspector general. “And [the change to DHS’s policy on family unit referrals] should not have been implemented. … I just wasn’t involved in the formulation of the policy, and [as] it was underway, I was getting reassurances that I now believe to be wrong.”
Officials told the inspector general that they hoped to limit the separation time and have Homeland Security keep the children nearby so the families could be reunited once parents were sentenced to time served.
But they quickly learned that wasn’t happening.
Cases in Texas were taking up to two weeks. U.S. policy limited the amount of time Homeland Security could hold children to 72 hours, so the children had to be transferred to HHS. That was when the reunification dilemma kicked in.
Justice Department leaders pushed ahead even though an attempt to increase prosecutions in 2017 exposed many of the problems that would plague the zero tolerance policy, the inspector general concluded.
Even as the crisis developed in 2018, Mr. Sessions was “adamant that this program needs to continue,” Mr. Rosenstein told the audit.
Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday vowed to hold hearings to explore the report in depth.
“This dark chapter in our history must never be repeated,” said Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn B. Maloney, both New York Democrats and, respectively, the chairs of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Governmental reform committees.
The policy didn’t even prove effective.
Illegal immigration by families remained steady at about 9,500 people per month from April 2018 through July 2018. Zero tolerance was in full effect from May 5 to June 20. But by late summer 2018, family migration began to climb and reached epidemic proportions in spring 2019, with nearly 100,000 family migrants caught in May 2019 alone.
That surge was solved after President Trump pressured Mexico to do more to protect its borders and after his team put into place new tools to let border authorities push migrants back into Mexico to wait for their immigration proceedings.
Mr. Trump curtailed much of the policy with an executive order June 20, 2018, and a federal court in California stepped in to order and oversee attempts to reunite families.
Under an order from that judge, the government also went back and looked for children who may have been separated outside of the official zero tolerance process. It identified more than 1,100 others.
Many of the parents were deported long ago, and the government and immigrant rights activists are trying to track them down to ask them what they want to happen.
Some are being allowed to return to the U.S. to follow through with the asylum process, and many of them are passing their initial screenings to win protections.