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The U.S. attorney general’s office was a “driving force” behind a prosecution policy that led to the separation of more than 3,000 immigrant children from their families, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general.
In April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero-tolerance policy” for illegal immigration, which required U.S. attorneys on the southwest border to prosecute all referrals for illegal entry, including misdemeanors. But the DOJ didn’t plan properly for the family separations that would happen after implementation, according to the report.
One impetus for the policy change was apprehension about a migrant caravan heading to the United States through Mexico.
Sessions was aware that the zero-tolerance policy would result in family separations, according to multiple DOJ leaders who spoke with the inspector general.
Sessions told U.S. attorneys in a May 2018 call that he supported continued prosecutions to ensure that a conviction was on the record of immigrants who entered the county illegally. “We need to take away children,” Sessions said, according to notes of the meeting.
Sessions said prosecution would be swift and be followed by immediate reunification of the separated family. But prosecutions took three to seven days, U.S. attorneys had reported, and federal law requires separated children to be placed with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.
“We found that Sessions and other senior DOJ officials did not adequately understand the family separation process that would accompany prosecution of family unit adults and that they had expectations about the process that were inconsistent with the realities in the Southwest border districts,” the report said.
The attorney general’s office didn’t discuss the policy in advance with the U.S. Marshals Service, leaving the service unable to plan for housing an increased number of defendants. Nor did the service have policies or procedures in place to facilitate communications between the immigrant children in custody and their parents.
In addition, the attorney general’s office did not inform federal courts about its intention to implement the policy, leading to resource and logistical problems for the judiciary, according to the report.
Gene Hamilton, counselor to the attorney general, had drafted the policy directive telling U.S. attorneys to accept as many prosecution referrals as possible. Hamilton told the inspector general that responsibility for the policy rested with President Donald Trump and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Lawyers who are working to reunite separated families said in a court filing Wednesday that they have been unable to find the parents of 611 separated children, according NBC News.
Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued a statement after the report was released.
“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,” he said. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”