Oversight hearing probes Sessions’ role in family separations

DOJ watchdog said Sessions knew early on that agencies struggled to reunite separated families under 'zero tolerance' policy

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown here in August 2018, played a key role in the so-called zero tolerance policy under the Trump administration, a federal watchdog told lawmakers Thursday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown here in August 2018, played a key role in the so-called zero tolerance policy under the Trump administration, a federal watchdog told lawmakers Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 4, 2021 at 4:11pm

Democrats on the House Oversight panel drilled into the Justice Department’s inspector general at a hearing Thursday on his finding that top Trump administration officials plowed ahead with its “zero tolerance” policy despite early concerns that it would separate families. 

Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz told members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee that it “became readily apparent” to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, and other officials that federal agencies were struggling to reunite families after they were separated at the border under the policy. 

The zero tolerance policy, announced in 2018, required all parents who cross the border without authorization to be prosecuted for illegal entry, a misdemeanor. But they could not be charged and sentenced quickly enough to be reunited with their children, due to legal limits on the time migrant kids can be detained before they must be transferred to government-run shelters, he said. 

“There was no effort to change the policy while it was underway, as reports came in about the problems that were occurring with reunification,” Horowitz said. 

The likely possibility of family separations was “even highlighted, frankly,” by a 2017 pilot zero tolerance program in El Paso, Texas, he added. 

[Watchdog: Jeff Sessions, Justice aides led ‘zero tolerance’ policy]

Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., — who disclosed at the hearing that she is currently quarantining after COVID-19 exposure —  said Trump administration officials “compounded the harm of this policy through incompetence.”

“They recklessly disregarded the objections of experts and failed to coordinate among agencies to track these kids. They ignored obvious warnings from an earlier pilot program that experienced many of the same problems. It was a disaster from start to finish,” she said in her opening remarks.

Other Democrats lamented that Sessions had refused to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office, which was unable to force his testimony because Sessions was no longer at the Justice Department. Horowitz agreed that Sessions “absolutely” should have been interviewed.

[Emails show internal agency confusion on family separations]

Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee focused their questions on President Joe Biden’s recent immigration actions calling for sweeping reviews of the prior administration’s hallmark asylum restrictions. They urged the committee to call Biden administration officials to testify.

Rep. James R. Comer of Kentucky, the panel’s top Republican, claimed the new administration’s rollback of those restrictions would worsen the humanitarian crisis at the border.

“Illegal immigration is on the rise again, even as the Biden administration cancels these much-needed reforms by executive order and guts interior immigration enforcement by agency memorandum,” he said. 

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., noted at the hearing that he led a letter Thursday, addressed to newly sworn-in Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, expressing concern that Biden’s recent executive actions on immigration would “send a message” to migrants that the new administration “is not serious about border security.”

Comer and his fellow committee Republicans also wrote separately to Mayorkas to request all documents related to Biden’s decision to halt border wall construction.

The hearing marked the first time Horowitz has testified before Congress on his report, released in January, detailing the chaotic implementation and fallout from the former administration’s family separation policy. 

Through detailed accounts of meetings and email threads, the report concludes that under Sessions, the attorney general’s office “was a driving force behind the decision to refer family unit adults for prosecution.”

The report also found that Sessions knew that families would be separated under the policy, and implemented it anyway, while failing to coordinate with relevant agencies and U.S. attorneys ahead of time. 

During one call in May, Sessions told a group of U.S. attorneys: “We need to take away children,” according to Horowitz’s report. 

More than 5,000 children were separated from their parents at the border under the Trump administration, mostly while the policy was formally in effect from April to June 2018 but also before and after that period, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, whose attorneys are representing families in litigation. 

A federal judge in June 2018 ordered the government to identify and reunite families, but the government’s failure to keep track of separations, revealed in an earlier inspector general report, has made reunification a challenge. 

According to recent court filings, attorneys are still unable to reach the parents of 611 children.

The committee hearing comes two days after Biden signed an executive order creating a task force to identify and reunify all families separated at the border during Donald Trump's term as president. The task force will be led by Mayorkas.