© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Greg Nash/AP
For the first time, a senior Trump administration official who helped implement family separation has condemned the hardline immigration policy which made it possible for the government to take more than 3,000 children, including infants, from their parents at the US-Mexico border in 2018.
In response to a damning report published Thursday by the US justice department's internal watchdog on the "zero tolerance" policy which made family separation possible, former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said the policy "should have never been proposed or implemented".
The justice department's Office of Inspector General's (OIG) long-awaited report said department leadership knew the zero tolerance policy would result in children being separated from their families and that the former US attorney general Jeff Sessions "demonstrated a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children". © Photograph: Greg Nash/APIn July 2020, the Guardian reported Rod Rosenstein had made comments in a conference call with US attorneys charged with implementing the policy that in effect meant that no child was too young to be separated from their parents.
"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.
The OIG said justice department leadership "did not effectively coordinate" with the relevant agencies before implementing zero tolerance, despite being aware of the challenges created by increasing prosecutions of adult asylum-seekers under "zero tolerance".
In a conference call in May 2018, Sessions told prosecutors "We need to take away children," according to notes taken by people on the call and provided to the OIG.
Rosenstein, who publicly denounced the policy for the first time on Thursday, told the OIG he knew the zero tolerance policy would result in family separations.
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In July 2020, the Guardian reported that Rosenstein had made comments in a conference call with US attorneys charged with implementing the policy that in effect meant that no child was too young to be separated from their parents.
In a statement provide to the Guardian on Thursday Rosenstein said he and his colleagues at the justice department "faced unprecedented challenges" compared to work he had done as a US attorney under previous presidential administrations.
"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," Rosenstein said. "It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better."
Sessions, who resigned in November 2018, announced "zero tolerance" policy in April 2018. Facing intense pressure nationally and abroad, the Trump administration stopped mass family separations in June 2018, though asylum-seeking families continue to be separated today at a smaller scale.
Family separation, which legal experts and doctors said constituted torture, was supported by multiple federal agencies.
The homeland security department (DHS) separated families at the border and detained the parents, the health department eventually took custody of children separated from their parents and the justice department leadership provided the legal framework which made separations possible with the "zero tolerance" policy.
The lead attorney on an ongoing family separation lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Lee Gelernt, said: "This new report shows just how far the Trump administration was willing to go to destroy these families. Just when you think the Trump administration can't sink any lower, it does."
"The Biden-Harris administration will inherit the legacy of family separation, and we don't doubt that more horrific details will continue to emerge," Gelernt said. "We need them to act with urgency - every day without action makes it harder to find and reunite families."
Former US Homeland Security secretary, Kristjen Nielsen, has repeatedly defended her decision to enforce the zero tolerance policy, which was announced in April 2018. Facing intense pressure nationally and abroad, the Trump administration stopped mass family separations in June 2018, though separations continue at a smaller scale.
In March, the health department's office of the inspector general found the system for tracking separated children was flawed and that the department only learned of separations through media reports because of the lack of communication between agencies.
The DHS OIG came to a similar conclusion in an October 2018 report, which found that Trump's administration separated more than 2,600 children from their parents without adequate systems in place to track or reunite families.
A January 2019 report from the health department OIG, found the Trump administration may have separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the border for up to a year before family separation was a publicly known practice.