Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A Honduran child taken from his father after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border together in June 2018. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A Honduran child plays at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after recently crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with his father on June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

'Damning' New IG Report, Says ACLU, Shows Just How Far Trump Team 'Was Willing to Go to Destroy' Immigrant Families

"Just when you think the Trump administration can't sink any lower, it does."

Brett Wilkins

As a former leading U.S. Justice Department official on Thursday said he regretted the role he played in the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" migrant family separation policy in the wake of a scathing  inspector general report, human and civil rights groups pointed to the probe's findings as "damning" proof of the administration's cruelty toward people seeking refuge in the United States.

"The incoming administration must reunite the separated families in the United States, but we cannot stop there. These families deserve citizenship, resources, care, and a commitment that family separation will never happen again."
—Lee Gelernt, ACLU

The inspector general's report (pdf) concluded that President Donald Trump, ex-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other senior officials were woefully unprepared when U.S. agents started seizing thousands of migrant children from their asylum-seeking parents and relatives who were often imprisoned in concentration camps after entering the United States, first in a 2017 DOJ pilot program and then nationwide the following year. 

The report, based on interviews with dozens of DOJ officials and a review of over 200,000 emails and other electronic files, directly implicates Trump in the disastrous policy. It also found that senior administration officials were "fully aware" that the policy would result in children being separated from their families but pressed ahead with it anyway. 

In response to the report, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Thusday released a statement of regret. 

"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," Rosenstein told NBC News. "It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better."

The ACLU—which successfully sued to block family separation and immediately reunite families—led human and civil rights groups in reacting to what it called the "damning" report. 

"The barbaric family separation practice was immoral and illegal," said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer who led the family separation suit, in a statement on Thursday. "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."

The new DOJ report's findings correspond with those of a 21-month House Judiciary Committee investigation published last October that accused the Trump administration of "reckless incompetence and intentional cruelty" in its implementation of the zero tolerance policy. In November, Conmon Dreams reported that 666 children—about 20% of whom were under the age of 5 when they were ripped away from their parents—remained separated from their families.

As a result of the separation policy, both parents and children—who were often told by U.S. officials that they would never see each other again—have suffered tremendous emotional and psychological trauma that Physicians for Human Rights has called "torture" and "state-sanctioned child abuse." 

Some of the seized children have been placed in U.S. families, who are sometimes able to petition for permanent custody, and it is feared that some of the children may indeed never see their parents again.

In late June 2018, as public outrage mounted in the face of stories like a breastfeeding baby being torn away from her mother and a father driven to suicide after being separated from his wife and child, the administration reluctantly rolled back the policy—which, along with forced surgical removal of reproductive organs of migrant women has been called the Trump administration's worst domestic human rights violation.

During the 2020 election, President-elect Joe Biden vowed to form a task force to reunite all of the separated children with their relatives. Gelernt stressed that he must now follow through on his promise. 

"The Biden-Harris administration will inherit the legacy of family separation, and we don't doubt that more horrific details will continue to emerge," the ACLU attorney said. "We need them to act with urgency—every day without action makes it harder to find and reunite families."

"The incoming administration must reunite the separated families in the United States, but we cannot stop there," Gelernt added. "These families deserve citizenship, resources, care, and a commitment that family separation will never happen again."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Brazil Votes Live: Lula Wins the First Round Over Far-Right Bolsonaro; Run-Off Oct. 30

Lula took the lead as more rural votes counted but failed to reach 50%

Common Dreams staff ·


'Enough is Enough': Hundreds of Thousands March Across the UK

'As wages fall while profits soar, our message is clear... We are here to win.'

Common Dreams staff ·


California Gov. Newsom Proposes Windfall Profits Tax on Big Oil

Calls for windfall profits taxes have increased globally in recent weeks

Common Dreams staff ·


'Incredible': Omar and Khanna Staffers Join Levin's Office in Unionizing

"It is long past time the United States Congress became a unionized workplace, and that includes my own staff," said Rep. Ilhan Omar. "I am proud of all the people on my team who have played a leading role in the staff unionization effort. Solidarity forever."

Jessica Corbett ·


Destructive Hurricanes Fuel Calls for Biden to Declare Climate Emergency

"Mother Nature is not waiting for the president or Congress to declare a climate emergency. She's showing us in real-time here in the United States—with wildfires, floods, heatwaves, hurricanes, and drought."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo