“We need to take away children,” former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly said at the time.
A draft investigation report from the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed this week that former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and several other high-ranking officials within the department were behind President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy that separated more than 4,000 children from their families at the US-Mexico border.
“We need to take away children,” Sessions reportedly said.
The “zero-tolerance” policy was implemented in April 2018 in an effort to detain and criminally prosecute every migrant—including asylum seekers—trying to cross the US border at places other than official ports of entry. (It is not legal for the US to deny anyone the right to seek asylum.) Prior to this policy change, families were generally detained together or released into the country to await their immigration hearings.
The report written by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz—first reviewed by the New York Times on Tuesday—revealed that children separated from their families were not an unintended consequence of the policy. Rather, the tactic was aggressively encouraged by Sessions and other top DOJ officials.
Unnamed officials also told the Times that the final report could change.
Sorting Fact From Fiction: Sign Up for COURIER’s newsletter.
In one May 2018 conference call, according to the 86-page draft report, five prosecutors stationed at the border—three of whom were appointed by the president—said they were “deeply concerned” about the ramifications of taking children away from their parents.
According to one prosecutor’s shorthand notes, the Times reported, Sessions’ response was: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”
A week later, former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein doubled down on the policy during a second call. He insisted that the age of the children, no matter how young they were, should not be a factor when it came to forcible separation, and chided the prosecutors for refusing to pursue two cases involving children who were nearly infants.
John Bash, a departing prosecutor in the Western Texas District, reportedly told his colleagues that Rosenstein “instructed that, per the AG’s policy, we should NOT be categorically declining immigration prosecutions of adults in family units because of the age of a child.”
In a statement to the Times, Rosenstein said he “never ordered anyone to prosecute a case.”
“Cruelty was always the point,” said Paola Luisi, director of Families Belong Together, a campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in a statement to The Americano. “These revelations are yet another reminder: family separation was a sadistic, official policy that was sanctioned from the higher echelons of our government with the explicit goal of making children suffer.”
This isn’t the first time Sessions and other top DOJ officials have been linked to the largely unpopular family-separation policy. In December 2018, former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly blamed the former Alabama senator for the immigration policy, noting that he “had surprised us.”
“What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation,” Kelly said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, debunking the former Attorney General’s claim that the administration “never really intended” separate families.
The Trump administration faced widespread backlash for its zero-tolerance policy that resulted in more than 4,368 children being separated from their families. The policy led to a string of reported neglectful and inhumane treatment ranging from losing track of thousands of children removed from their parents, locking kids in cages where they slept under aluminum foil-like blankets, forcing minors as young as five years old to sign away their rights, and prosecuting toddlers without legal representation in immigration court. Some mothers had their babies taken away from them while breastfeeding.
In August 2020, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also reportedly kept 120 children detained at their facilities despite a court order demanding their release due to the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is no consideration for the well-being of the individuals,” Sarah Lachman, a principal attorney at Lachman Law specializing in family immigration, told COURIER. “It’s just about policy, looking strong, and keeping reputation.”
Lachman said that other variations of child separation took place in the immigration system before the zero-tolerance policy was implemented as well. More than two years ago, Lachman said she represented a seven-year-old immigrant child who was separated from their parents and relatives during deportation proceedings.
“It is just surreal to even consider that someone who literally couldn’t walk across the border without a parent or some kind of guidance is actually in court, being held responsible and may have a deportation order,” she said. “It’s surreal because what can the child actually do about it?”
The draft report also said that Sessions had allowed Trump and the DHS to take most of the blame for the policy—despite supporting family separations as a means to curbing undocumented immigration.
“The 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 draft report stated.
When Sessions announced the policy during a speech in May 2018, he had placed fault on the parents and relatives who brought their children with them to cross the border. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” he said at the time. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
Lachman, however, pointed out oftentimes migrants have no other choice. Many of her clients who come through the border without documentation are seeking asylum because “there’s just no other way to get into the country [before requesting] asylum.”
“If they leave them in their country, they die,” she continued. “They could be murdered because they’re being chased by gangs or by family or by whoever by the government themselves. So the thought that if you really care about your kids, you’ll leave them at home, is the exact opposite reason of why most of these people are even coming here.”
According to a Doctors Without Borders study, two-thirds of migrants fleeing Central America—home to countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—had their family taken or killed at home. The study, released in February 2018, said 42% of migrants reported a violent death of a relative in the previous two years and 16% with a relative forcibly disappeared. About 9% said a loved one was kidnapped.
Undocumented parents fleeing violence and conflict from their home countries are left between a rock and a hard place when it comes to protecting their children, Lachman added. “It’s like, well, because if I left them at home, they would have still been taken away from me. It’s like, where, what options are there at that point for people who are trying to escape extreme deadly violence in their country?”