Jan 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

DOJ watchdog report underscores chaos of “zero tolerance” immigration policy

A woman holds a child

A Central American migrant and her children walk outside El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, in July 2019. Photo: Omarínez/AFP via Getty Images

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions underestimated how complicated the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy would be, and did not fully understand the legal requirements to care for children separated from their families, according to a report released Thursday by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Why it matters: At least 545 parents separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border under the now-reversed policy could not be located as of October.

What they found: The agency's "single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions" of migrant adults in families crossing the southern border "came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations," the report finds.

  • DOJ officials were aware of challenges — including a lack of coordination with Southwest U.S. attorneys offices, federal courts, and the Health and Human Services Department — but "did not attempt to address them until after the policy was issued."
  • U.S. attorneys shared concerns about family separations with Sessions, including questions about what would happen to children after they had been separated and plans for reuniting them. The former AG "promised additional resources" but held firm on continuing the prosecution of adult migrants who had traveled with children.
  • The OIG found that Sessions expected the agency "to prosecute as many illegal entry cases as possible, including cases involving family unit adults, until all available resources were exhausted."

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Stef Kight: The report clearly chronicles Sessions’ focus on penalizing adults who crossed the border above considerations for how it would impact migrant children. It also underscores how little was done to address logistical concerns from the start, which left hundreds of children still separated.

What they're saying: Democratic chairs on the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees said the report revealed "the chaos, cruelty, and reckless disregard for vulnerable children" caused by the policy and accused the Trump administration of seeking "to intentionally harm children and families as a deterrent to migration."

  • A DOJ spokesperson said that while the agency is responsible for prosecutions under the "zero tolerance" policy, it has no role in tracking or providing custodial care for affected children, saying that responsibility belongs to other agencies.
  • The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Go deeper