The Justice Department knew families would be separated when it pushed the Zero Tolerance border policy in 2018 but had no concrete plans for dealing with the fallout, an inspector general said in a new report Thursday, and years later some children and parents are still struggling to reunite.
Administration officials had argued the separations were incidental, but Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz’s findings revealed that those at the top of the Justice Department were aware of the ramifications and went ahead anyway.
The report marked a final spanking to the outgoing administration over one of the low points of President Trump’s immigration policy, which saw his team struggle to deal with the caravans of families that streamed across the border early in his tenure.
Mr. Horowitz said the bungle began with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose April 2018 memo demanded federal prosecutors along the border start to bring criminal charges against more parents who jumped the border with children in tow. He also urged the Border Patrol to submit more parents for prosecutions.
Mr. Sessions’ intent was to try to create a deterrent to the surging number of families, who knew that if they brought children they would often be released into the country where they could disappear into the shadows. But prosecuting the parents meant children had to be taken away — and there was no firm plan for how to reunite them later.
More than 3,000 children were separated.
“The department’s singleminded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful consideration of the impact family separations would have on the children and the government’s ability to later reunite the children with their families,” Mr. Horowitz said.
The Justice Department, in its official response, said it “does not agree with all of the analysis and conclusions,” but did agree to all three recommendations involving better communication with other departments and agencies.
Much of the report’s work was confirming what had already been suspected or known about the zero tolerance policy, thanks to court cases and reviews by Congress.
President Trump curtailed much of the policy with an executive order in June 2018.
A federal court in California has ordered and overseen attempts to reunited families.
Under an order from that judge, the government also went back and looked for children who may have been separated outside of the official Zero Tolerance process. It identified more than 1,100 others.
Many of the parents were deported long ago, and the government and immigrant-rights activists are now trying to track them down to ask them what they want to have happen.
Some are being allowed to return to the U.S. to follow through on starting the asylum process, and many of them are passing their initial screenings to win protections.
House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie G. Thompson said the report confirmed the intentional nature of the separations.
“The Trump administration will forever be known for its cruelty and disregard for the well-being of these families and children,” he said.