Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his then deputy Rod Rosenstein pushed for a “zero tolerance” policy that led to immigrant family separations despite concerns raised by key federal prosecutors at the border, who were caught off guard by the decision, according to a new oversight report from the Justice Department.
Sessions knew at the time of their decision that it would lead to family separation, but he and his senior officials made massive assumptions about how long this process would take, the report said. These assumptions do not correspond to the realities on the ground.
Sessions and Rosenstein refused to adjust their perspective, even when they were more knowledgeable about how the process would play out and knew it would mean tearing young children away from their families.
After some American lawyers at the border expressed concern, they were ordered to continue the prosecution.
It had huge implications. The family separation policy at least 5,400 immigrant children of their parents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, although supporters believe the number can be higher. These children included still breastfeeding infants, toddlers and other young children. All went through a huge trauma, often adding to the pain and fear they had experienced in their home countries, which many were fleeing to seek asylum, and while traveling to the United States
In some cases, the government failed to keep records of where the children went. Some of these families have never been reunited.
According to the report, the heads of the sessions and the justice ministry operated with the belief that separation, prosecution, conviction and reunification could take place within an afternoon. Justice officials did not consult with the US Marshals Service, federal advocates, or federal courts before making the decision. There is no evidence Rosenstein was aware of some of the early discussions around the policy, but he supported and implemented Sessions’ decision.
Rosenstein, who spent his career with the Justice Department in the greater Washington, DC area, appeared gravely naive about the realities on the ground involved in prosecuting so many low-level cases.
“My thought was maybe we were just going out [the defendant] back to DHS and they can just hold the child for a few hours while the parent was in court and then they would be back together that night, ”he said.
Gene Hamilton, the attorney general’s adviser, also believed they would be able to reunite the families within hours, the report said.
“We thought the prosecution would take place in an afternoon or a few days, [that a child would remain] in DHS custody and then there would be reunification with the children, ”Hamilton said. “We never imagined that DHS would lose track of the children and their locations. Like sending kids to a shelter in New Jersey. It was not our understanding at all.
After reviewing a draft of the report, Rosenstein had doubts.
“I had this false sense of security that DHS has this under control,” he says. “[After] the GA had deployed it, I understand it was coordinated with DHS, which managed [the way in which] the children will be taken care of. … And so I had this false sense of security that I’m just doing what I can to provide logistical support and obviously looking at it in retrospect I have a very different perspective.
Officials under President Donald Trump have either applauded the policy as a way to deter unauthorized immigration or have looked the other way.
The Justice Department began separating families in 2017, but announced its “zero tolerance” policy more broadly in April 2018. In May, at the urging of senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, officials have decided to go ahead with politics in a show of hands voting, NBC News reported.
The DOJ has started to dramatically escalate prosecutions for illegal entry of parents crossing the border with children. Under previous administrations, like that of President Barack Obama, families who crossed the border illegally were generally not charged with a crime, but rather subjected to immigration procedures.
Sessions and other officials said it was not about separating families. Instead, they insisted that it was no different to separate parents from their children when they went to jail for some other reason.
But the policy was not only about the prosecution of crime; it was about removing the children to prevent the parents from coming to the United States The administration started to think about it a way to deter families arrive at the border in March 2017. That same month, then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly publicly confirmed that such a plan was under consideration, noting also the need for deterrence.
The sessions were heavily involved, as the Inspector General’s office found. When the five U.S. lawyers along the U.S.-Mexico border expressed concerns about the well-being of children, Sessions fired them, The New York Times reported in October based on a draft report.
“We have to take kids,” Sessions told prosecutors, according to attendees’ notes, The Times reported.
Rosenstein later said the age of the children didn’t matter.
After intense public outrage, Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 to end the practice, then congratulated himself for doing so – even though his administration had launched it in the first place.
Neither Sessions nor Rosenstein still serve in the Trump administration. The sessions were ultimately kicked out after the 2018 election because Trump disliked his handling of the Special Council’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rosenstein resigned in May 2019, after the publication of the report of the special council.
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