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.
The cruelty is the point.
This administration’s unconscionable family separation policy will forever be a stain on our nation’s history.https://t.co/9dscvdoxC4
— Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) January 14, 2021
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 more we learn about family separation, the more we see was both a willfully cruel and criminally negligent policy.
We must hold every person who created and facilitated family separation accountable under the law and never repeat this mistake. https://t.co/eIWf8S986j
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— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) January 14, 2021
A reminder that those quitting on Trump now are the same people who stood by him as he cruelly separated families and caged kids.
We must do everything we can to reunite families, hold all those who caused this torture accountable, and humanely reform our immigration system. https://t.co/lB0ARkYFdj
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) January 14, 2021
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."