Sessions, top DOJ officials knew ‘zero tolerance’ would separate families, watchdog finds

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Top Justice Department (DOJ) officials including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions knew the Trump administration’s 2018 “zero tolerance” immigration policy would result in child separations but advocated for it anyway, according to a scathing new report from the DOJ watchdog agency.

According to the report from the DOJ Office of Inspector General released Thursday, the attorney general’s office “was a driving force” behind the decision to refer family unit adults for prosecution.

In one instance, according to the report, Sessions told U.S. attorneys that “we need to take away children,” and if migrants really cared about their kids, “don’t bring them in.”

The report found DOJ leadership did not coordinate with the U.S. attorneys or judges at the southwest border, or with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which was responsible for housing and caring for the children who were separated.

Overall, the watchdog report found the policy led to a $227 million funding shortfall.

The announcement of the zero tolerance policy in April 2018 was the culmination of a yearlong period during which the Justice Department sought to increase criminal immigration enforcement on the border.

Administration officials had touted the policy as a way to deter migrants from crossing into the U.S. with their children. 

According to the report, DOJ’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.”

The report found the attorney general’s office issued and implemented the policy without an adequate understanding of the family separation process and the relevant legal requirements, particularly the rule that said children could not be kept in custody for longer than 72 hours.

Prosecutors, advocacy groups, judges and U.S. attorneys all raised concerns, but Sessions and other top officials did not listen, the report found.

Under the policy, every adult who crossed the border illegally was referred for prosecution. Any children brought across the border were separated from their parents, deemed to be “unaccompanied,” and detained by HHS in separate facilities sometimes hundreds of miles from their parents.

“Zero tolerance” ultimately resulted in more than 3,000 children separated from adults. It was widely condemned before President Trump officially ended the policy with an executive order.

A ruling by a federal judge in San Diego forced the administration to reunite many of the children who were separated under the policy, but until the lawsuit there was no plan to reunite the children with their families.

“The barbaric family separation practice was immoral and illegal. 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,” said ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the family separation lawsuit.

A 2019 HHS watchdog report detailed the deep psychological damage brought on by family separations, finding separated children “exhibited more fear, feelings of abandonment, and post-traumatic stress” than children who were not separated. 

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, and said he will form a task force that will focus on reuniting separated families.

Tags Donald Trump family separation Immigration Jeff Sessions Joe Biden Zero tolerance

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