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Sessions and top aides pushed for separating migrant families despite warnings, report finds

Parents of 545 migrant children "unreachable"
Parents of at least 545 migrant children "unreachable" 08:26

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his aides were the "driving force" behind the separation of thousands of migrant families in 2017 and 2018, pushing for the policy's implementation even as federal prosecutors raised concerns about the young age of some of the children, according to a report released by the Justice Department's internal watchdog.

A 93-page report published on Thursday by the Justice Department's Inspector General found that Sessions and top aides, including his counselor Gene Hamilton, failed to coordinate with U.S. prosecutors, the U.S. Marshals Service and shelters before ordering the "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting all adults who crossed the southern border without legal permission, including those traveling with their children.

"We concluded that the Department's single-minded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations," the report said.

According to the report, U.S. attorneys along the southern border were not initially made aware that Sessions wanted them to prosecute all migrant parents who had been apprehended with minor children. They were later told that was the case, and that there would be no categorical ban on prosecuting parents because of their children's age.

"[W]e need to take away children," Sessions said during a call in May 2018, according to contemporaneous notes taken by several U.S. attorneys. "[I]f care about kids, don't bring them in; won't give amnesty to kids; to people with kids," the notes said. Sessions declined to be interviewed by investigators with the inspector general's office, the report said.

John Bash, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, told the Justice Department Inspector General's team that then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said prosecutors could decline to prosecute some cases if they involved parents of children who had a disability or spoke "pre-Columbian languages."

Rosenstein told investigators from the inspector general's office that he understood the zero tolerance policy would result in children being separated from their families.

"I think the answer is yes," he said. "I think everybody understood that what it meant was we are going to prosecute ... everybody who committed a crime without regard [to] whether they brought a child."

In a statement following the report's release on Thursday, Rosenstein, who stepped down in May 2019, said he wished "we all had done better."

"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," said Rosenstein, who is one of the few Trump administration officials who have expressed regret over their involvement in enforcing the policy. "It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented."

As detailed in the report, a U.S. prosecutor in Texas told investigators that the prosecution of migrant parents had a "considerable effect" on his office's ability to prosecute other criminal cases, including those related to sex crimes. Crossing the border without permission, if prosecuted, is a misdemeanor offense.

During the spring of 2018, U.S. immigration authorities separated more than 2,800 migrant children from their parents, before judicial intervention and public outcry forced the Trump administration to halt the practice.  

The children were incorrectly designated as unaccompanied minors and sent to shelters overseen by the U.S. refugee agency, while their parents were prosecuted for crossing the southern border without legal permission.

Most of the 2,800 families who were separated during the zero tolerance period were still in the U.S. when a federal judge blocked the policy, and were eventually reunited. 

Roughly 470 parents were deported during this period, and about one-third chose to have their children brought back to Central America, as the government generally opposed allowing them to return to the U.S. The rest allowed their children to remain in the U.S. without them.

Many of the migrant parents separated from their children in 2017 and early 2018, however, were deported without them, complicating reunification efforts. Because of stale or outdated personal information and phone numbers, advocates have been struggling to locate all parents and more than 600 remain "unreachable," according to court documents.

Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the separated families, urged the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to rectify the "immoral and illegal" legacy of the family separation policy. Mr. Biden has pledged to create a task force to help locate separated parents who have yet to be located.

"The incoming administration must reunite the separated families in the United States, but we cannot stop there," Gelernt said. "These families deserve citizenship, resources, care, and a commitment that family separation will never happen again." 

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