Top justice department officials led policy that separated migrant parents from children, report claims

‘We need to take away children,’ then-attorney general Jeff Sessions is reported to have told officials

Mayank Aggarwal
Wednesday 07 October 2020 19:19 BST
Jeff Sessions was among those pushing President Trump’s zero -tolerance border policy
Jeff Sessions was among those pushing President Trump’s zero -tolerance border policy

Top justice department officials including the attorney general Jeff Sessions and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein were among those pushing president Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy which led to many migrant children getting separated from their families.

The revelation comes from an 86-page draft report following a two-year investigation by the US Justice Department’s inspector general Michael E Horowitz, a version of which was reported by The New York Times on Tuesday.

According to the Times report, Horowitz’s investigation cites documents, interviews and many other details that reveal how the family separation policy was “developed, pushed and ultimately carried out with little concern for children”.  

One example highlighted in the report was when five US attorneys from areas along the border with Mexico, including three appointed by Mr Trump himself, expressed apprehension against the order to prosecute all undocumented immigrants. These attorneys told the Justice Department officials that the order could result in migrant children being separated from their parents, and that they were deeply concerned about the minors’ welfare.  

Yet in a call with prosecutors, the then-attorney general Mr Sessions, as per participants’ notes, told them that “we need to take away children”. The then-deputy attorney general Rod J Rosenstein, who had a call with the five prosecutors a week later, stressed that government lawyers should not have refused to prosecute two cases even though the children involved were barely older than infants.

Trump’s policies on migration throughout his term have been controversial, but the issue of separating children from their parents became a disaster when the administration struggled to reunite the families after legal processes had been followed. 

Horowitz stressed in his report that the idea behind a zero-tolerance policy was to deter future illegal immigration.  

The draft report highlighted that the justice department’s “single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and effective implementation of the policy, especially with regard to prosecution of family-unit adults and the resulting child separations.”

The Times report revealed that though Horowitz has been preparing to release the report since late summer, the process involving responses from officials whose “conduct is under scrutiny… is likely to delay its release until after the presidential election”.

The report highlights other incidents which have alarmed officials, including cases of separation of breastfeeding defendant mothers from their infants during a secret 2017 pilot programme along the Mexican border in Texas. 

The report also outlined instances of border patrol officers missing serious felony cases as they were stretched too thin and noted that the failure to inform the US Marshals Service before announcing the zero-tolerance policy resulted in “serious overcrowding and budget overruns”.  

The draft report reveals that after the pilot programme in Texas, the justice department pushed the policy to separate parents from children across the entire southwestern border, with help from prosecutors.

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