A senior Trump administration official who helped implement the 2018 family separation policy at the America-Mexico border, former Deputy General Rod Rosenstein, has issued a statement of regret on Thursday, Current Department of Justice (DOJ) official Gene Hamilton also then spoke out, blaming President Trump for the policy.
While responding to a damning report published by the DOJ’s internal watchdog on the policy, Rosenstein admitted that the policy “should have never been proposed or implemented”.
In 2018, the then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top department officials implemented a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy despite knowing that it would forcibly split up families, according to the report by the justice department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). It was also found that Sessions “demonstrated a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children”.
The policy left many immigrant children with devastating experiences as they were forcibly separated from their parents.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified 22 cases in which one or more children described such separations from a family member, usually within the first few hours after they were apprehended.
“The immigration agents separated me from my father right away, said a 5-year old Honduran boy held in the Clint Border Patrol Station, Texas. “I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again.” He said he did not know how long he had been separated from his father.
Another Honduran 8-year old boy detained along with his 6-year-old sister said: “They took us from our grandmother, and now we are all alone.” He also couldn’t say for how long they had been away from their grandparent. The “zero-tolerance” policy was one of the many Trump administration’s unfavourable policies against immigrants and asylum seekers.
Session’s office was instrumental in instructing U.S. attorneys to prosecute all adults crossing the southern border illegally, regardless of whether they had children. This resulted in border agents sending children into the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS) while their parents faced prosecution.
The “zero-tolerance” policy lasted from April to June 2018 and resulted in the separation of over 5,000 families, with hundreds of them yet to be reunited.
“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 states.
The OIG found that Sessions and other top Trump administration officials were aware that the policy meant separation of families – which contradicts the administration’s repeated claim at the time that it did not intend to have a family separation policy at the border. They also did not plan for the effect the policy would have on children or the challenges it would create for the US criminal justice system.
In his reaction to the report Rosenstein, who left the department in May 2019, said: “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. It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.” He told the OIG that he had not been involved with the drafting of the policy and was given reassurances about it that he now believed were wrong.
Despite this, in July 2020 Rosenstein was reported to have said that no child was too young to be separated from their parents while having a conference call with the U.S. attorneys charged with implementing the policy.
The call followed repeatedly raised concerns on how the policy was supposed to be operated. It became clear that none of the agencies had a master list of separated children after a question on how DHS was dealing with infants was raised.
Consequently, following the backlashes both nationally and internationally, the Trump administration stopped mass family separation in June 2018, though asylum-seeking families are still being separated albeit at a smaller scale.
In the OIG report, a top Justice official Gene Hamilton said the policy was formulated after a White House meeting in which officials made clear their desire to take further action against illegal immigration. He added that Sessions “perceived a need to take quick action.”
Despite his roles, however, Sessions who resigned in November 2018, refused to be interviewed for the report.
The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to form a task force that will help in reuniting the remaining 500-plus children detained at the border with their families. Biden had previously condemned the policy, calling it “criminal.”
[Header Image: Analogicus, Pixabay]