A damning new draft report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice details how former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, were the driving force behind enforcement of the Trump administration's family separation policy and pressured officials who spoke out to go along with prosecuting parents of children as young as infants.
Drawing from nearly 50 interviews with DOJ officials as well as internal documents, the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz refutes claims by DOJ officials who sought to distance themselves from President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, under which government attorneys were directed to prosecute all cases of undocumented immigrants who crossed the southern U.S. border, even if they arrived with their children, and calling for families to be separated upon arrival to deter future immigrants.
"It is vile that our officials failed to stop this. No indictments, not even impeachment for it. These are crimes against humanity."
—Sarah Kendzior, host, "Gaslit Nation"
As the New York Times reported, U.S. attorneys who met with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the spring of 2018 noted that Sessions told them, "We need to take away children," according to internal documents. One prosecutor wrote in notes from a meeting in May 2018 a summary of the administration's view on why family separation should be U.S. policy: "If [asylum seekers] care about kids, don't bring them in. Won't give amnesty to people with kids."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein rebuked U.S. attorneys who declined to prosecute two cases against parents of very young children, the report found.
Horowitz's findings called into question Sessions' claim, made just after Trump was forced to sign an executive order in June 2018 ending the family separation policy, that the DOJ had never intended to separate children from their parents.
Months before the policy was officially announced in April 2018, a secret pilot program was launched in southwestern states with the explicit goal of separating families as a means to cut down on immigration.
A Border Patrol official told the U.S. attorney in New Mexico in October 2017 that "it is the hope that this separation will act as a deterrent to parents bringing their children into the harsh circumstances that are present when trying to enter the United States illegally."
The report also refutes claims by DOJ officials that they believed families would only be separated for a matter of hours, indicating that the officials knew parents were being sentenced to jail terms as long as 14 days, necessitating family separation for at least that long.
"We found no evidence, before or after receipt of the memorandum, that DOJ leaders sought to expedite the process for completing sentencing in order to facilitate reunification of separated families," Horowitz wrote in the draft.
Times immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson tweeted that Horowitz's report confirms once and for all that the DOJ has lied repeatedly in the last two years about the intent of the policy.
First, @DHSgov said mass-separations weren't happening (they said the documents my sources provided were fake). Then they said separations were an unintended consequence, when in fact they were always the point. Years later, the IG confirms, again, the truth. Read for yourself. https://t.co/bcSZsD5NYy
— Caitlin Dickerson (@itscaitlinhd) October 7, 2020
In an interview with the inspector general's office, Rosenstein said that although the DOJ was behind the family separation policy, the department was not responsible for keeping track of where the thousands of children ended up or for their welfare.
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"I just don't see that as a DOJ equity," Rosenstein said, according to the report.
Last year, the ACLU reported that more than 5,400 children were taken away from their parents by the Trump administration—far more than previously acknowledged—between July 2017 and October 2019. With the DOJ's failure to track the locations of children, many families were separated for months. In July 2019, the Texas Tribune reported that hundreds of children had been forcibly separated from their parents after the policy officially ended.
According to Horowitz's investigation, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was resistant to the policy but relented in May 2018 when she signed a memo referring all adults who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without going through a port of entry for prosecution.
Soon after, Nielsen became a staunch defender of the policy, vehemently denying that the Trump administration was trying to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the United States.
Critics on social media expressed disgust at the report, with calls for Sessions and Rosenstein to testify publicly on their involvement in the policy and warnings that the president must be voted out of office in November to prevent further abuses of immigrant families.
“We need to take away children.” - then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions
— Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) October 6, 2020
Thread from June 2018, the night the migrant family separation story broke. I was giving a talk and started to cry on stage, which I never do.
It is vile that our officials failed to stop this. No indictments, not even impeachment for it. These are crimes against humanity. https://t.co/PR3PdCXtoI
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) October 7, 2020
If Trump wins a second term expect more heartless, cruel, barbaric behavior towards infants and children. He only stopped the first time because it affected his poll numbers. #FamiliesBelongTogether #Immigration https://t.co/0kw8V5hQmG
— Susan Church (@SusanBChurch11) October 7, 2020
"If Trump wins a second term expect more heartless, cruel, barbaric behavior towards infants and children," tweeted Susan Church, an immigration attorney in Massachusetts. "He only stopped the first time because it affected his poll numbers."