Watchdog Finds Lack of Planning for Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy

The Justice Department’s inspector general found some agencies weren’t notified before the announcement of the 2018 policy that led to thousands of family separations at the border.

An asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway after arriving from an immigration detention center to a shelter in San Diego in December 2018. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

(CN) — A government watchdog report released Thursday found Justice Department officials implemented the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, knowing it would lead to family separations, without properly preparing federal agencies and prosecutors.  

The Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that officials in charge of carrying out President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policy continued to focus on prosecutions, while ignoring the concerns of other agencies and U.S. attorneys. 

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy in April 2018. It requires each U.S. Attorney’s Office on the Southwest border to prosecute all referrals from the Department of Homeland Security involving illegal entry and attempted illegal entry into the United States.

“I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said at the time.  

The inspector general found that the Justice Department failed to prepare agencies for implementing the controversial policy, which resulted in more than 3,000 family separations.

The watchdog said U.S. Attorney’s Offices were not initially notified of the policy change and received no guidance from the Justice Department on how to implement it. The prosecutors raised concerns about family separations, including the whereabouts of children separated as a result of the policy, in a call with Sessions in May 2018, according to the report.  

“We found that the attorney general expected Southwest border USAOs to prosecute as many illegal entry cases as possible, including cases involving family unit adults, until all available resources were exhausted,” the report states.

The U.S. Marshals Service was also left out of the loop prior to the policy’s announcement. Its leaders raised concerns to the Justice Department that the drain on resources would impact the agency’s ability to fulfill its duties.

“The agency’s leadership also warned that the policy would result in a funding shortfall of $227 million. USMS district staff described to the OIG how the demands of implementing the policy would affect safety of the public, courthouses, detention facilities, and USMS staff,” the report states.

It added that the lack of notice to the Marshals Service that family separations would occur left the agency unprepared for how to facilitate communications between parents in custody and their children.

Still, the Justice Department moved forward with its strict directives.

The policy sparked major backlash from civil rights organizations, and studies found that children who were taken from their parents at the border suffered lasting emotional damage.

According to the watchdog report, the zero-tolerance policy was based on an initiative that the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector started in March 2017, when it began referring adults in family units for criminal prosecution. The Western District of Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office had developed new guidelines to prosecute the adults in certain circumstances, even if it caused them to be separated from their children.

By the time this effort, known as the El Paso Initiative, ended in November 2017, about 280 families had been separated.

“These separations, and the government’s inability in many cases to identify the whereabouts of separated children, generated concerns from prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders,” the report states.

But the inspector general said Sessions only focused on increasing illegal entry prosecutions, and “did not seek readily available information that would have identified for them the serious issues that arose as a result of the prosecutions of family unit adults and the corresponding child separations.”

“DOJ officials were aware of many of these challenges prior to issuing the zero-tolerance policy, but they did not attempt to address them until after the policy was issued,” the report states.

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