Report: Jeff Sessions pushed zero-tolerance border policy despite concerns

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Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Jeff Sessions pushed for a zero-tolerance policy along the border despite concerns about family separations, the Officer of Inspector General said Thursday in a report.

Sessions, who took the oath of office as President Donald Trump's first attorney general in February 2017, announced the zero-tolerance policy for immigration offenses involving illegal entry into the United States in April 2018.

The policy required each U.S. Attorney's Office on the Southwest border to prosecute all referrals for illegal entry, including misdemeanors, and represented a historic change in longstanding practice by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, according to the report.

"Historically, when DHS apprehended adults with children illegally crossing the border, DHS, with the concurrence of the Southwest border USAOs, would place the family unit in administrative deportation proceedings without referring the family unit adult to DOJ for criminal prosecution," the report noted. "Following the DOJ issuance of the zero tolerance policy, DHS changed its practice and began referring family unit adults to DOJ for criminal prosecution and the Department agreed to prosecute these cases. As a result, more than 3,000 children were separated from their families and issues regarding reuniting children with their parents remain as of this date."

As attorney general, Sessions pushed for the zero tolerance policy in 2018, despite concerns that an El Paso pilot of the new policy in 2017, amid his previous memorandum to ramp up enforcement, resulted in family separations, Thursday's report shows.

"The El Paso initiative sought to increase illegal entry prosecutions and allowed for prosecution of family unit adults, resulting in the separation of approximately 280 families," the report said. "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."

"Despite these concerns, the OAG focused solely on the increase in illegal entry prosecutions resulting from the El Paso initiative 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 corresponding child separations," it continued.

Attorneys also expressed concerns about family separations the month after Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy, "including the whereabouts of children separated as a result of the policy," the report said.

Sessions was aware of the zero-tolerance policy separating children from families, according to attorneys and staff, and at one point, he told U.S. Attorneys, "we need to take away children; if care about kids, don't bring them in; won't give amnesty ... to people with kids," the report noted.

The OIG also noted that the DOJ did not plan for the fallout the zero-tolerance policy would have on the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the federal courts.

In particular, the USMS found without additional resources, the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy would result in a 2019 funding shortfall of $227 million and a shortage of about 3,000 beds.

Among its recommendations, the OIG urged the establishment of procedures for the USMS to follow in working with the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement case workers to facilitate communication between parents separated from children and their children.

Sessions resigned as attorney general at Trump's request in November 2018, after the two butted heads over the separate matter of Sessions recusing himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Sessions declined to comment on Thursday's report, but Rod Rosenstein, who served as Sessions' deputy attorney general, expressed contrition in a statement to The Washington Post Thursday.

"Since leaving the Department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero-tolerance immigration policy," the statement said. "It was a failed policy that should have never been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better."

A court filing last month showed that parents of 628 migrant children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border through the zero-tolerance policy remain missing.

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