The US Department of Justice (DOJ) “did not effectively plan for … the impact that family unit adult prosecutions would have on children,” despite awareness from senior DOJ leadership that the program would lead to the separation of children, according to a report Thursday from the DOJ Office of the Inspector General reviewing the implementation of the DOJ’s controversial “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy.
The policy was announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018 and was intended to minimize illegal immigration to the US by criminally prosecuting any individual who crossed the border illegally. The policy mandated children be separated from adults once detained by US authorities, which differed from a longstanding federal policy allowing children to remain with adults while undergoing administrative deportation proceedings, rather than harsher criminal prosecution. More than 3,000 children were separated before the policy was curtailed by Executive Order in June 2018, and many have yet to be reunited with their families.
The Inspector General’s report found numerous issues with the implementation of the Zero Tolerance policy, finding that communications between Sessions and the appropriate departments were often misleading and unrepresentative of both the law and conditions in detention centers and that such miscommunications resulted in difficulties with locating separated children. Furthermore, contact was found to have been limited between migrant children and their parents in separate custody.
The report noted that the DOJ “did not plan for the … impacts that a substantial increase in immigration prosecutions resulting from the Zero Tolerance Policy would have on the United States Marshal’s Service, the United States Attorneys’ Offices, and the Federal Courts.” These unforeseen issues resulted in a department funding shortfall of $227 million in 2019 as well as a shortage of roughly 3,000 beds for detainees.
The report recommends that coordination between federal stakeholders be improved for future DOJ policy rollouts, and additionally recommends that efforts be made to ensure communication is established between children and adults separated in federal custody.