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Top US Officials Knew of Harm Caused by Separating Families

Bad Policy, Planning and Heartlessness of ‘Zero Tolerance’ at Border

People hold signs to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order to detain children crossing the southern U.S. border and separating families outside of City Hall in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 7, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

In a damning send-off for the administration of President Donald Trump, the US Justice Department’s inspector general has concluded an investigation into the forced separation of migrant families at the border.

In 88 pages, the report meticulously catalogues the bad policy choices, inadequate planning, and sheer heartlessness that had US authorities tear children from their families.

The separations resulted from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy, an April 2018 directive requiring prosecution of every adult who entered the United States irregularly, including parents travelling with their children. Once parents were taken to court, they weren’t in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody, meaning DHS rules treated their children as unaccompanied. US officials sent more than 2,600 children to shelters overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The report makes clear that family separation wasn’t inadvertent or incidental. Sessions and other senior officials knew what the “zero tolerance” policy would mean. Sessions thought it “was the right thing to do,” officials told investigators, because it would deter other families from attempting the journey. “We need to take away children,” Sessions said at one meeting, according to prosecutors’ notes. (Sessions refused to cooperate with the investigation.)

The Justice Department had piloted “zero tolerance” in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, covering New Mexico and western Texas, in March 2017 and knew of its consequences. Then-acting US Attorney Richard Durbin warned of “obvious problems” and stated, “History would not judge [the policy] kindly.” As the pilot continued, other prosecutors expressed shock at what they saw. One wrote, “We have now heard of us taking breast feeding defendant moms away from their infants, I did not believe this until I looked at the duty log.”

When the department rolled out “zero tolerance” along the border, it didn’t coordinate with HHS or other government agencies. HHS’s own investigation found “no evidence that HHS was notified in advance by either DOJ or DHS that the zero-tolerance policy would be implemented.”

It also didn’t address the “technology-related challenges” the El Paso pilot revealed – most critically, that DHS had no reliable way of tracking separated families, as that agency acknowledged in a May 2020 report.

It is obvious that forced separation traumatizes children and deeply damages family relationships. These harms weren’t a concern for Sessions and other senior officials, the report shows.

Releasing these findings now leaves any meaningful steps toward accountability to the incoming administration of Joe Biden. Reckoning with these appalling abuses means continuing to reunite children with their families and helping them recover.

It also requires meaningful steps to make sure something like this never happens again.

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