A pair of former top officials at the U.S. Department of Justice who publicly distanced themselves from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their families actually helped spearhead the effort to utilize the practice as a means of deterring illegal immigration, the New York Times reported on Wednesday night. Attorneys—including several DOJ alumni—were shocked and appalled by the revelations. Many of them called for an immediate congressional investigation.
According to a draft report from DOJ Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz obtained by the Times, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were a “driving force” behind the policy that resulted in the separation of 2,814 children from their parents or guardians, approximately 1,033 of whom were under the age of 10.
“We need to take away children,” Sessions told DOJ prosecutors in a conference call, according to participants’ notes reviewed by the Times. “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids,” one participant on the call wrote in their notes.
In a second call the following week, Rosenstein reportedly took Sessions’ decree a step further, telling five DOJ prosecutors that the age of migrant children should be of no concern, specifically highlighting two cases to say that the government should not have declined prosecutions “simply because the children were barely more than infants.”
“The department’s single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and effective implementation of the policy, especially with regard to prosecution of family-unit adults and the resulting child separations,” read Horowitz’s draft IG report.
While family separations occurred under the Obama administration, the policy was not used to deter illegal immigration.
Under the Obama administration, the vast majority of families caught unlawfully crossing the border were detained together or released pending trial. Children were only separated from guardians if authorities determined the children were in danger.
“There must be accountability for this,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Sessions. And Rod Rosenstein, who told prosecutors, ‘it did not matter how young the children were.’ A deliberate and cold-blooded mass human rights violation.”
Ifill was not alone in her assessment, which was echoed by former federal prosecutors Harry Sandick, Renato Mariotti, Elie Honig, and Jennifer Rodgers (the latter three are CNN legal analysts).
“This needs to be investigated by Congress and future Department of Justice,” wrote Sandick.
“[Jeff Sessions] and [Rod Rosenstein] need to answer for their role in the separation of children from their families. Congress should subpoena them to testify,” Mariotti added.
Honig said both men should “never live this down,” calling their alleged conduct “an ugly, vindictive, cruel abuse of prosecutorial power.”
“A stunning abuse of power from Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, apparently more than happy to use DOJ to enact Trump’s cruel family separation policy. Shame on them,” wrote Rodgers.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general under President Barack Obama, said both Sessions and Rosenstein should have refused to enforce the policy.
“Sessions and Rosenstein brought great shame to DOJ-and themselves-for actively participating in the separation of children from parents as a matter of policy to deter border crossings. Conscience should have outweighed their desire for job retention,” he tweeted.
Several other attorneys, law professors and legal reporters also denounced the former DOJ officials.
[Image via the U.S. Department of Justice.]
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