Attorney General Jeff Sessions and high-ranking Justice Department officials were the “driving force” behind separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and were unprepared to house migrant children or reunite them with their parents, according to a recently released review by the DOJ inspector general.
In the spring of 2018, under pressure from President Donald Trump, Sessions and his aides implemented a “zero tolerance” policy for immigration at the southern border. The policy change forced U.S. attorneys on the border to prosecute every case referred to them by the Department of Homeland Security that involved undocumented adults crossing the border, even if they were traveling with children. The hope was that this harsh punishment would reduce undocumented immigration by deterring migrants from coming to the U.S. But the report concluded that the attorney general’s office “failed to effectively prepare for, or manage, the implementation” of that policy.
As a result of the “zero tolerance” policy, more than 3,000 children were separated from their families, the report said. And some parents were deported while their children remained in U.S. custody, which has complicated efforts to reunite them. As of Wednesday, lawyers who are trying to reunite separated families said in a court filing that they cannot locate the parents of 611 of those children.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said in a speech in May 2018. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
The inspector general found that Sessions and the DOJ were not prepared to deal with the ramifications of separating families, including how they would care for children of migrants found crossing the border. These children were often sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which was not adequately prepared to house them. This led to “insufficient bed capacity, care provider facilities struggling to meet separated children’s needs, data limitations, and difficulties identifying separated children for later reunification,” the report said.
The U.S. attorneys responsible for these prosecutions raised their concerns to Sessions on a conference call when the policy was first implemented, but according to one participant’s notes cited in the report, the attorney general told them, “We need to take away children,” and, “If [undocumented immigrants] care about kids, don’t bring them in.”
The 93-page report concluded that “the Department’s single-minded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees reacted to the report, writing in a joint statement, “Our Committees and multiple independent Inspectors General have now uncovered shocking evidence that the Trump administration sought to intentionally harm children and families as a deterrent to migration, and did not care to plan for the consequences. This dark chapter in our history must never be repeated.”
The DOJ inspector general report follows a 2018 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general on the same policy, which similarly concluded that DHS was “not fully prepared to implement the Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy or to deal with some of its aftereffects.”
Trump ultimately ended the cruel policy via executive order on June 20th, 2018. But as the inspector general reports conclude, by then, so much damage had already been done.