A Timeline of the Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy

An extensive timeline of the administration’s communications about family separation, including its public statements about the policy, internal discussions we uncovered through FOIA, public reporting, and agency investigations.

Part of President Donald Trump’s hallmark “zero tolerance” initiative, the administration’s family separation policy formalized the separation of children from parents as a deliberately cruel measure to attempt to deter future migrants. Internal investigations later found that the agencies implementing the “zero tolerance” initiatives did not adequately plan for tracking and reuniting separated family members, leaving hundreds of children still separated from their parents years after the policy formally came to an end. American Oversight launched an investigation into the policy’s origins and implementation, and to date has filed more than 120 public records requests to state and federal government agencies to shed light on this dark period in American history. 

Documents we obtained provide further evidence of a pattern of miscommunication and disorganization within the Department of Homeland Security at the same time that officials were issuing misleading public statements about the administration’s policies. Below is an extensive timeline of the administration’s communications about family separation, including its public statements about the policy, public reporting, internal agency investigations, and internal discussions we uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act.

2017

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December

2018

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December

2019

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December

2020

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December

2017

JANUARY 2017

Jan. 20
President Donald Trump is inaugurated.

Jan. 25
Trump signs a pair of executive orders on border and immigration issues, including directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end the practice of “catch and release,” under which migrants apprehended at the border are released until their court hearings.

FEBRUARY 2017

Feb. 2
John Lafferty, the asylum chief at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), briefs asylum officers on a proposal to separate families crossing the border together, in comments later reported by Reuters

Feb. 14
At a meeting in the office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, which includes representatives from the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), DHS’s policy office, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), officials discuss family separation as a potential policy option for ending “catch and release.” Commander Jonathan White, who helped to oversee the ORR program that provides custody for unaccompanied minors and would eventually be charged with caring for children separated from their parents, recalled the meeting in later congressional testimony. 

An entry on the calendar of Gene Hamilton, then a counselor to DHS Secretary John Kelly, labeled “President’s Border Security Executive Order: Ending Catch and Release,” describes a focus of the meeting as “joint DHS, DoJ, and HHS plans for addressing unaccompanied minors and their parents/sponsors in the U.S.”

A DHS official who was present at the meeting later tells journalist Jacob Soboroff, who wrote about the meeting in his book Separated, that the tone of the discussion was “If we go this route, we need to be ready.”

MARCH 2017

In early March, according to a January 2021 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general (DOJ IG), the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector suspends what officials referred to as the sector’s “family unit policy,” under which “the Border Patrol did not refer parents in family units who were apprehended at the border for illegal entry prosecution if the referral would result in children being separated from their parents.” Richard Durbin, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, emails colleagues, “History would not judge [prosecuting family units] kindly.” (While the DOJ IG notes that officials in the El Paso region began discussing family separation in March, most accounts point to the pilot project in the region fully starting in July. Its beginning remains murky: In November 2019, the DHS inspector general admitted it “could not determine the origin of the initiative.”) 

March 3
After Reuters reports that the Trump administration is considering a family separation proposal, an unidentified person emails the story to DHS budget director Allen Blume, commenting, “Allen- I would be truly grateful if you could tell me this isn’t being seriously considered.”

March 5
A House or Senate Appropriations Committee staffer, possibly the same person who wrote to  Blume on March 3, emails Blume and McAleenan: “The Chairmen of the full committee and subcommittee have been informed this option is under consideration. Given the serious ramifications adopting such a policy would have, the Chairman expects to be informed prior to adopting it. If this is a problem, please let me know.” At the time, the House committee was chaired by Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and the Senate committee by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

McAleenan forwards the exchange to DHS Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen, acting ICE director Thomas Homan, and Gene Hamilton. Nielsen asks Jonathan Hoffman, head of public affairs for DHS, and others, “[W]hat is our [talking point] here?” and “[W]hat is inside story?” 

March 6
DHS Secretary John Kelly tells CNN that the administration is considering family
separation as an immigration deterrent.

March 7
DHS Acting Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Dimple Shah emails Hamilton to request that they “discuss the ‘separating families’ issues raised at the morning huddle.”

March 9
Durbin, the U.S. attorney in Western Texas, instructs prosecutors in his office to consult with the Border Patrol about whether to prosecute adults traveling with children, using a “sliding
scale” based on the adult’s “culpability.” Durbin later tells the DOJ IG
, “We were operating on assumptions that [DHS] was prepared and competent to deal with the placement of children, but we did not want to prosecute where it would require the separation of very young children from their parents.” 

House investigators later conclude that “it does not appear that CBP, or any DHS component, disclosed the existence of the [El Paso pilot] program to ORR,” the agency that would be charged with caring for children taken from their parents. 

Hamilton attends a meeting on “Family Unit and UAC [unaccompanied alien children] white papers.”

March 29
Secretary Kelly reportedly tells Senate Democrats during a March 29 meeting that the administration does not intend to separate families.

APRIL 2017

April 11
Attorney General Jeff Sessions circulates a memo directing federal prosecutors to prioritize prosecution of certain types of immigration cases and directing U.S. attorney’s offices on the southwest border to develop prosecution guidelines with the “goal of deterring first-time improper entrants.”

April 19
The CBP field office in El Paso receives a document request from DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about family separations. CRCL was seeking information about how CBP made decisions to separate family members and about the processes in place for tracking and reunifying families in the previous relatively uncommon circumstances in which separations took place. CRCL noted, “Between December of 2008 and December of 2016, CRCL received 421 complaints on various types of family separations which occurred while in CBP custody.”

April 20
Someone at DHS emails Hamilton asking for “guidance” on how to respond to “tons” of letters asking the secretary not to separate families at the border. 

April 24
U.S. attorneys on the southwest border submit their new prosecution guidelines to Sessions, as required by his April 11 memo. All of them say that they’ll prioritize illegal entry cases that present “aggravating circumstances,” according to the DOJ IG report. Hamilton, who would later move to DOJ to work for Sessions, later tells the DOJ IG that Sessions was frustrated: “It was almost as if no one paid attention to the AG’s memo, especially with respect to [misdemeanor] illegal entries.”

JULY 2017

July 6
The acting U.S. attorney in the District of New Mexico removes “all restrictions imposed on referrals from Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector,” according to a November 2017 memo later cited by the Government Accountability Office.

July 28
A Border Patrol official proposes that the family separation initiative that began in the DOJ’s Western District of Texas be expanded to the District of New Mexico, which also overlaps with the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector. The official writes: “Although it is always a difficult decision to separate these families, it is the hope that this separation will act as a deterrent to parents bringing their children into the harsh circumstances that are present when trying to enter the United States illegally.” The next month, the District of New Mexico would tell the Border Patrol that it should refer for prosecution adults traveling with children if the children are over 10 years old, if the family relationship can’t be established, or if there are other “aggravating circumstances.”

July 31
John Kelly becomes White House chief of staff, and Elaine Duke becomes acting secretary of DHS.

AUGUST 2017

In August, Hamilton reportedly leads a group of DHS staff members in creating proposals for deterring illegal immigration, including a proposed family separation policy. In Texas, where the Border Patrol and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) were testing an increase in family separations, the USAO deputy criminal chief emails the acting U.S. attorney, raising concerns about the inconsistent application of the new initiative, including very young children being separated from their parents, and a lack of coordination in reuniting families.

Aug. 10
In a meeting invitation, a White House executive assistant includes an introductory email sent by ORR Director Scott Lloyd to White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, asking for a meeting. Lloyd explains that ORR oversees the Unaccompanied Alien Children and Repatriation programs and writes, “I’d like the opportunity to share our approach to the major issues facing our programs and hear your thoughts on anything that could improve.”

Aug. 15
An ORR staffer emails Commander Jonathan White, “We have received 27 separations over the last 7 days. The majority of these referrals seem to be coming from El Paso and Phoenix.” The staffer goes on to tell White, in an email later quoted in Soboroff’s Separated, that there were additional separations taking place that were not being tracked or reported. 

Aug. 31
Stephen Miller emails Chad Wolf, who had recently become chief of staff at DHS, “Great talking to you, and thanks for your help. Look forward to working with you.”

SEPTEMBER 2017

Sept. 15
ORR Director Lloyd emails Stephen Miller “a backgrounder on the Unaccompanied Alien Children program” that Miller had requested “a few weeks back.”

Sept. 27
As reported in Soboroff’s Separated, after a meeting with other administration officials at a D.C. law firm, an ORR official reports to Commander Jonathan White that “DHS Policy is working on a family separation policy again, to send all children to ORR. They don’t understand that ORR has its own obligations and these types of cases often end up with parent repatriated and kid in our care for months pending home studies, international legal issues, etc.”

OCTOBER 2017 

Oct. 29
Jonathan Hoffman, assistant DHS secretary for public affairs, writes to several people within DHS: “So I talked with Julia and Stephen Miller yesterday on immigration priorities. Stephen and (I believe) Short had a conversation w Gen [John] Kelly to get guidance on plan for selling the immigration priorities. Below is their initial draft of DHS items.” (“Julia” is presumably Julia Hahn, a special assistant to the president; “Short” likely refers to White House aide Marc Short.) The draft is redacted.

NOVEMBER 2017

Nov. 1
A Congolese asylum-seeker, identified as Ms. L, and her daughter arrive at a port of entry near San Diego and are separated a few days later, according to an American Civil Liberties Union complaint. 

Nov. 11
Commander White tells Lloyd, in an email later made public by the House Judiciary Committee, that he’s been noticing an increase in children separated from their families being put in ORR custody. “We had a shortage last night of beds for babies. … Overall, infant placements seem to be climbing over recent weeks, and we think that’s due to more separations from mothers by CBP.” 

Nov. 16
The agenda for a quarterly meeting that the DHS civil rights office (CRCL) holds with stakeholders discusses the office’s ongoing investigation into the “many complaints on family separation” that the office had received “over the past year.”

“Last week we met with CBP [Office of Field Operations] and Border Patrol to discuss our investigation into this issue, and they agreed to work closely with us to help identify problematic examples of family separation and address ways to prevent them from occurring,” reads a talking point for a CRCL official.

Nov. 17
Commander White emails McAleenan to inform him that ORR has seen a “significant increase” in children put in ORR care after having been separated from their parents, and that these children are “often” 12 years old and younger.

Nov. 18
McAleenan receives a “Daily Media Summary,” which includes a BuzzFeed story about an immigrant father separated from his son in San Diego. After inquiring about the details of the case, he asks that CBP’s public affairs officers be told that the decision to separate the family fell with ICE, not his agency: “If ICE [Enforcement and Removal Operations] call to separate, let’s get that info to [Office of Public Affairs] for any follow up inquiries.”

CBP concludes the El Paso family separation pilot program. The numbers of families separated under the pilot initiative are unclear; the Government Accountability Office, in an October 2018 report, put the number separated between July and November at 281 “individuals in families”; a later DHS IG report put the number at “nearly 280 families.”  

Nov. 25
The Houston Chronicle reports on a spate of recent family separations at the border, including difficulties in reuniting children and their families.

DECEMBER 2017

Dec. 1
A staff member sends an email to Cameron Quinn, head of the DHS civil rights office, with the subject line “Summary of Family Separation Investigation,” indicating that a full draft investigation and recommendations are still in progress.

Lloyd meets with Miller to discuss “Unaccompanied Alien Children.” HHS counselor Maggie Wynne joins by phone.

Dec. 3
After more than two weeks, McAleenan responds to White that he “should have seen a change [in] the past 10 days or so” in the number of separated children referred to ORR. McAleenan does not mention the existence of the El Paso pilot program, or explain that it was recently ended.

Dec. 6
Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in as DHS secretary.

Dec. 11
ICE Chief of Staff Thomas Blank reports that ICE has been asked to take the lead on drafting decision memos for Nielsen “on separating Family Units and on vetting sponsors” for minors in the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. Blank says that he believes such memos had previously been drafted and signed by James Nealon, acting undersecretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, “in the early September timeframe.” “We need to get them dusted off, internally coordinated and sent over to DHS,” he writes. Staff find two memos from the Office of Policy, a “signed family separation memo” and a signed “UAC re-designation memo.”

Dec. 15
Hamilton asks Wolf about the status of a policy options memorandum that DHS had started drafting in August 2017.

Dec. 16
James Nealon weighs in on a “UAC options paper” in an exchange with ICE legal adviser Tracy Short, DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf, policy office chief of staff Briana Petyo, and Assistant Secretary for Border, Immigration, and Trade Policy Michael Dougherty.

Wolf sends Hamilton a document titled “Policy Options to Respond to Border Surge of Illegal Immigration,” which includes the option of separating families apprehended at the border. The next day, according to the DOJ IG report, Hamilton writes back to express his support and suggest that the Border Patrol undertake expedited removal proceedings for entire families.

Scott Lloyd schedules a call with Stephen Miller about the unaccompanied migrant children policy.

Dec. 21
Numerous immigrant-rights groups submit a complaint about “an alarming increase in cases of family separation while in custody at the U.S.-Mexico border.” The DHS civil rights office’s Quinn suggests that her office “open [a] discussion w/a number of similar investigatory units at DHS & see if we can’t streamline the process … as it’s clear there’s no coordinate.” 

Dec. 27
DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf gives Secretary Nielsen a list of topics to discuss on a plane ride with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, including “Border Surge Policy Options – Separate Families.”

Top Justice Department officials ask Western Texas U.S. Attorney John Bash for statistics from the family separation pilot program conducted by his predecessor that could be used to develop “nationwide prosecution guidelines.” Bash later tells the DOJ IG that he afterward assumed the idea had been abandoned.

2018

JANUARY 2018

Jan. 24
Dana Salvano-Dunn, Cameron Quinn’s deputy at the DHS civil rights office (CRCL), sends Quinn a “brief write-up regarding the forthcoming CRCL recommendation for a DHS/HHS family separation work group.”

The memo that appears to be attached to Salvano-Dunn’s email was based on CRCL’s 2017 investigation into 27 of the 950 “family separation matters” the office had received since 2016. It cited a number of problems, including “a lack of clear family separation protocols”; “inconsistent, inaccurate, or no record-keeping for all arriving family members” in DHS systems; a “lack of communication” between DHS components and HHS, which is charged with caring for unaccompanied minors, leading to “family fragmentation”; and “problematic outcomes” such as “nursing mothers and infants separated” and “no contact or awareness of other family members’ locations.” The sometimes permanent separation of families, the memo reported, had created “new populations of U.S. orphans.”

FEBRUARY 2018 

Feb. 8
The National Security Council convenes a meeting (the topic of which is redacted) involving ORR Director Scott Lloyd, Special Assistant to the President John Zadrozny, Gene Hamilton (who moved to the Justice Department to serve as counselor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions), and a number of high-ranking DHS officials. 

Feb. 22
Nielsen, Wolf, and other DHS officials attend a “HHS MOU Briefing.”

Feb. 26
The ACLU files suit on behalf of Ms. L, the Congolese woman separated from her daughter in San Diego.

MARCH 2018

March
DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf emails Secretary Nielsen, saying: “Ma’am, FYSA – we’re receiving a number of press inquiries regarding an asylum seeking Congolese woman and her child who have been separated and are currently in detention facilities in the US…Jonathan [Hoffman] is currently using the following statement – ‘DHS does not currently have a policy of separating women and children. However, we retain the authority to do so in certain circumstances – particularly to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities … We ask that members of the public and media view advocacy group claims that we are separating women and children for reasons other than to protect the child with the level of skepticism they deserve.’” Nielsen replies: “I see Tyler [Houlton]’s note- ‘Every major outlet asked about specifics on Wednesday.’ This is also one of the stories I asked about last week.”

March 6
In response to a question from a reporter, ICE legal adviser Tracy Short asks Chief of Staff Thomas Blank for data on the “separation of children from their purported family members for FY 2017 and FY 2018.” Blank responds with data on March 8. 

March 9
Wolf writes to Blank: “Need ICE / CBP to run a process to get some stats on percentage of FAMU [family units] we separate. I believe ICE indicates they needed to pull info from each office. Understand it may be time intensive but this issue is not going away.” 

March 15
Wolf has a call with CBP Acting Chief Patrol Agent Ryan Scudder, who “wanted to touch base … regarding the meeting you requested to take place regarding ‘Separating Children and Families.’ He had a question regarding the fingerprinting component.” The next day, Wolf’s confidential assistant tells him that Short and Scudder need to talk with him ahead of a March 19 meeting on family separation and DNA and fingerprinting issues.

March 19
Nielsen calls a meeting with top staff from throughout DHS, including leaders of CBP, ICE, and USCIS, “to discuss the issue of family separation as well as DNA and fingerprinting issues” ahead of a Senate meeting the following day.

March 20
Salvano-Dunn sends an email to Cameron Quinn indicating that CRCL has been kept in the dark about plans for a family separation policy: “[N]one of us are clear about the Department’s broader perspective on family separation and whether a formal change in policy is likely. Knowing if and how current policy will change is obviously very helpful information as we develop our recommendations, and as we continue to engage the public on this topic.” Salvano-Dunn writes that “CRCL has received an enormous volume of matters involving family separation (1,063 separate allegations since Jan. 1, 2016).”

March 26
Wolf sends Nielsen “the list of issues Stephen [Miller] has pulled together for the Wednesday Policy time with POTUS” in an email with “Border Brief” in the subject line. The list is redacted.

March 28
Citing “increased scrutiny” of family separations, ICE sends guidance to field offices directing officers to pay increased attention to each adult’s case in instances in which ICE has separated family members.

March 30
Marguerite Telford, communications director for the immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies, emails White House staffers Theo Wold and John Zadrozny regarding the “caravan” of migrants making their way to the U.S. from Central America: “I have heard that the 1000-1500 Central Americans headed this way are being trained on what to say (credible fear) to be allowed entry. Who is funding this? CBP and USCIS asylum officers will be the first contact. I am sure [USCIS Director Francis] Cissna is on top of this … we are screening every person? Obama would have waved them in!” 

A recipient forwards Telford’s note to Cissna, who circulates the note within USCIS. “Unfortunately … it is likely most of these people will indeed be let into the U.S. after claiming credible fear and then being briefly detained in family centers,” he writes.

Kaitlin Vogt Stoddard, an adviser to Cissna, responds with “points of concern” that she says have been laid out by USCIS officials Jennifer Higgins and John Lafferty. Potential “solutions” laid out in the points that Stoddard attributes to Higgins and Lafferty include “legislative or regulatory actions to terminate the Flores Settlement,” which restricts the amount of time families can be held in immigration detention. “The other option, which I know is the subject of discussion, is that DHS may detain only the parents throughout the removal process, placing the child with HHS for placement as a now unaccompanied child under TVPRA [Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act].”

When Stoddard mentions sending the analysis to the USCIS press shop, Cissna warns, “Don’t think we’d want to say the highlighted portion publicly.” It’s unclear which portion he is referring to. 

APRIL 2018

April 2
DHS Secretary Nielsen emails public affairs official Jonathan Hoffman about “op eds and strategic communications plan,” in an email later released to journalist Jason Leopold: “At this point think the best play is to release concept of being required to both separate and check sponsors. Question is what tone. Either: you all need to be aware to help the children/ this is why congress should help us stop trafficking/ DHS upgrading processes to put children first.”

April 3
According to the DOJ IG report, Sessions asks Hamilton to draft a policy directive for the southwest border U.S. attorney offices “to work with DHS to increase the number of referrals from DHS and to accept as close to all of these referrals for prosecution as possible.”

According to the New York Times, President Trump meets with Sessions, Nielsen, and Hamilton. Hamilton later reports that Trump “ranted” and was on a “a tirade,” demanding as many prosecutions of migrants as possible.

April 4
Hamilton circulates a draft of the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy. Officials within the Office of the Deputy Attorney General who review the policy later tell the DOJ IG that they did not know that the policy would result in the separation of families. Likewise, U.S. attorneys at the border are not informed that the policy is meant to result in separations. Hamilton and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein later tell the DOJ IG that Sessions knew the policy would lead to families being separated. DOJ and HHS inspectors general later find that DOJ and DHS did not inform HHS of the policy change, which would result in a large influx of children in HHS care, despite being in contact with the health agency about other immigration matters.

Miller and Wolf exchange emails discussing the January 2017 executive order that would be enforced by Sessions’s zero-tolerance policy, to be announced two days later. 

April 5
High-ranking DHS officials, including Undersecretary Claire Grady and Chief of Staff Chad Wolf, and top leadership from USCIS, ICE and CBP hold a “Conference Call re: Alien Detention/Southern Border Discussion,” which includes the topic “Eliminate Policy of Releasing Adults and Children Together.”

April 6
Jeff Sessions orders a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all people who illegally cross the southwest border. President Trump issues a memo directing the Departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to report to him on their progress toward ending “catch and release,” the practice that allowed immigrants to be released from detention while awaiting court hearings.

White House staffers, including Stephen Miller, exchange emails about the White House Counsel’s Office efforts to draft, with attorneys at HHS and DHS, “Flores regulations.” The exchange is later forwarded to DOJ’s Gene Hamilton.

A DHS civil rights office (CRCL) staffer emails DHS Undersecretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans James McCament and Assistant Secretary Michael Dougherty, saying, “CRCL has received an enormous volume of matters alleging inappropriate family separations and is preparing to issue recommendations on the topic, but we are not clear about the Department’s broader perspective on family separation and whether a formal change in policy is likely.” The next day, apparently having received no answer, CRCL’s Quinn forwards the email to DHS Deputy Chief of Staff Evelyn Lim, asking who in the department is working on the issue. 

April 13
Wolf, McAleenan, Homan and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick have a “Call re: HHS MOU.”

Mitnick emails Secretary Nielsen, Wolf, and Jonathan Hoffman with the subject line “HHS UAC MOA,” saying, “The MOA has been fully signed. By its terms it will go into effect in 30 days (i.e., on 5/13/2018).” The memorandum of agreement between HHS and DHS regarding the Unaccompanied Alien Children program is available here.

April 16
CNN reports that the DHS inspector general will begin an investigation into family separations.

The National Security Council convenes a meeting on “Border Security,” as well as ending “catch and release” and the possibility of sending the National Guard to the border.

April 19
USCIS Director Francis Cissna sends his colleagues “a draft CBP memo regarding implementation of the POTUS ‘catch and release’ memo and DOJ’s ‘zero tolerance’ memo,” explaining that USCIS and ICE have been asked to sign on and asking the USCIS officials to provide comments. At one point, Cissna asks about the “interplay between asylum claims and prosecution for illegal entry.”

April 20
The New York Times learns from HHS that DHS has separated 700 children from their parents since October. DHS officials, learning of the upcoming Times article, scramble to come up with their own statistics.  Wolf writes to DHS public affairs officials, including Deputy Press Secretary Katie Waldman, “My frustration on this continues to be at a all time high – I’ve been asking for these numbers for weeks.” 

According to Soboroff’s Separated, after the Times story is published, ORR Director Scott Lloyd suggests destroying the agency’s list of separated children, an informal dataset that at the time was the only source the government had to reunite separated families.

Nielsen, Wolf, and Mitnick travel to DOJ headquarters to meet with Attorney General Sessions about “ending catch and release and other immigration/border security measures.” Hamilton, who is at the meeting along with Rosenstein and DOJ Chief of Staff Matt Whitaker, later tells the DOJ IG that Sessions and Rosenstein “both expressed a willingness to prosecute adults in family units if DHS made the decision to start referring such individuals for prosecution.” 

April 22
Hamilton emails charts to others in the Justice Department showing the “volume of potential referrals” if CBP were to start referring adults traveling with children for prosecution. “Prosecuting the adults in the family units will require some coordination between DHS and ORR, but we’re going to have to figure out things on our end, too.”

April 23
CBP Commissioner McAleenan, USCIS Director Cissna, and ICE Director Homan issue a memo urging Secretary Nielsen to implement the “zero tolerance” policy by prosecuting parents crossing the border with their children. The memo, first reported by the Washington Post and obtained by Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight, contained Nielsen’s signature on the recommended option of family separation. 

April 24
Mitnick signs a memo to Secretary Nielsen titled “Criminal Prosecution of Aliens Who Entered Unlawfully: Legal Guidance on Potential Separation of Family Members.”

Hamilton emails Wolf and McAleenan that “[w]e simply need more cases referred for prosecution across the board,” assuring them that if a given federal prosecutor is overwhelmed by referrals from HHS, DOJ will provide them with more resources.

Waldman compiles a list for Nielsen of instances in which “separation has to happen,” comprised mostly of examples of allegedly “fraudulent” families.  

April 30
Stephen Miller sends Nielsen and Wolf part of a transcript from a PBS Frontline documentary that he says “shows how the UAC program is being used for child labor and modern slavery.” Nielsen replies, “Thx for sending! We will add to our narrative.”

MAY 2018

May 1
Hamilton asks McAleenan for an update “on the timing of the implementation phase-in” of family referrals, an exchange that Hamilton later tells the DOJ IG came after extensive discussion between Sessions and Nielsen. McAleenan tells him it will likely be the following week.

Sessions has a conference call with U.S. attorneys on the southwest border, which DOJ IG later finds was “likely” the first time that the U.S. attorneys had been informed of the potential of a policy of prosecuting adults traveling with children. U.S. Attorney John Bash later told the DOJ IG that U.S. attorneys were not informed until several days later.

Hamilton and two DOJ officials brief Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein ahead of an interagency call with Nielsen.

May 3
President Trump meets with Sessions, Nielsen, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other top officials. Hamilton prepares talking points for Sessions to use in the meeting arguing for family separations, including asserting that the El Paso pilot initiative “worked.”

May 4
Nielsen signs a memo instructing DHS to implement “zero tolerance” by referring adults traveling with children to DOJ for prosecution. According to NBC News, Gary Tomasulo, then the senior director for border and transportation security on the National Security Council, emails staffers to tell them that higher-ups had agreed to the “zero tolerance” policy and they needed to develop plans to support it.

May 6
Justice Department officials instruct southwest border U.S. attorneys on the new policy. A participant in the conference call writes, “As instructed by AG Sessions, we are to accept all unauthorized aliens, including members of family units. We do have discretion to decline prosecution based upon unique case-specific circumstances.” 

May 7
In a speech announcing the new policy, Sessions says, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” Hamilton later tells the DOJ inspector general that Nielsen was initially scheduled to join Sessions, but withdrew to avoid “bearing the wrath of the policy.”

May 8
An OMB staffer sends Kraninger an email with “Family Separation Info,” including DOJ and White House press releases, and the email chain on “ICE Bed Capacity Update” from the previous month.

May 9
President Trump criticizes Nielsen at a cabinet meeting for not doing more to stop immigration across the southern border, saying that she needs to “close down” the border, according to a report the next day in the Washington Post.

Miller asks Hamilton to call him.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan’s assistant schedules a call between Sullivan and Miller.

May 11
Secretary Nielsen issues a memo directing “all DHS law enforcement officers at the border to refer all illegal border crossers to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution to the extent practicable.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly tells NPR that children separated from their families will be “put into foster care or whatever.” 

The five U.S. attorneys from southwest border districts raise concerns to Hamilton and others at DOJ about the family separation policy, in particular what was to become of children once they were separated from their parents. Sessions holds a call with the prosecutors later in the day, telling them, according to a participant’s notes, that “we need to take away children” to prevent granting “amnesty” to those traveling with children.

Hamilton emails ICE and CBP officials and Lloyd asking to talk about the logistics of reuniting separated families. 

A House staffer emails McAleenan, saying that they hope “things are not too crazy for you guys” and that “this 100 prosecution thing makes me shake my head.” McAleenan responds that things are “too crazy right now indeed.” 

May 12
In a call with southwest border U.S. attorneys, Hamilton reiterates that DOJ’s policy is to prosecute parents traveling with children and assures them that DHS and HHS are “working closely” to care for the children.

May 14
Nielsen requests a call with Rosenstein to discuss the “need to work together to ensure all are prosecuted” as well as “concerns from the field.”

May 18
OMB plans to convene a “Border/zero tolerance resources working group” that includes a number of officials from DHS, DOJ, and HHS. 

May 22
Rosenstein instructs federal prosecutors that, per Sessions’s orders, attorneys in their offices shouldn’t be categorically declining to prosecute adults traveling with children under 5 years old, according to a summary of the call by Bash that is later provided to the DOJ IG.

May 26
Stephen Miller exchanges emails with DHS communications staff about a reporter inquiry about a President Trump tweet about family separation. Jonathan Hoffman writes, “The family separation policy is the same as it was under the prior administration.” After being forwarded the email chain, Wolf says he “also talked to Miller.”

May 27
Stephen Miller responds to an email chain about “Family Separation,” asking for a “conference call ASAP” with DOJ’s Hamilton and representatives from HHS. In the email chain, communications officials discussed, in part, how to respond to recent reporting on the administration’s preparation to hold immigrant children on military bases. 

ORR’s Scott Lloyd joins a conference call with HHS Secretary Azar to prep for a call with Miller

Miller and McAleenan schedule a phone call. Later in the day, they have an exchange about “D&R status,” possibly a reference to deportations and removals.

Miller and Hamilton go back and forth on edits to a White House press statement on family separation that is to go out under the name of spokesman Hogan Gidley. The next day, Gidley issues a statement defending Trump’s attempts to lay the blame for family separation on Democrats. 

Miller forwards to Azar an MSNBC clip about family separation that DHS communications staffer Katie Waldman had sent to him. “This is the misinformation on every network,” Miller writes.

May 28
Miller emails McAleenan and Wolf in a largely redacted exchange referencing unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries. “Until there are removals the crisis will never end,” he writes.

May 29
Miller emails an unidentified recipient in ICE: “From October through December of 2017, only 5 UACs [unaccompanied alien children] were removed from the country while more than 7,000 were released into the interior.”

The Federal Public Defender’s Office in McAllen, Texas, emails local federal judges and the U.S. attorney’s office staff a proposal for a “Child Welfare Court” to coordinate family separations. “We continue to point out to the magistrate courts that our clients are enduring the punishment of separation from their children which is greater than any jail time they can have imposed upon them.” The email adds: “None of the parents are being told when the children will be returned to them.” The email is eventually forwarded to the White House, HHS, DHS, and Sessions.

JUNE 2018

Protests against the family separation policy take place across the country, including demonstrations by members of Congress and the multi-city Families Belong Together marches.

June 1
CRCL Officer Cameron Quinn emails CBP Commissioner McAleenan: “We’re being told that Operation Streamline is causing parents to lose their opportunity to have their credible fear claims heard. … And as a consequence, the children rendered UAC due to the separation are now not part of the parents asylum claim. They would have to affirmatively request asylum … which in some cases, given their tender age, is not likely.”

June 2
DHS Deputy Secretary Claire Grady emails Rosenstein and others at DOJ about the agency’s challenges in placing children separated from their parents with HHS, including dealing with a higher proportion of very young children and as a result holding many children for longer than the 72-hour legal limit. “If we cannot turn this around and timely place UACs, we will have no choice but to scale back on [the zero tolerance policy] and undermine the deterrent effect we are looking to achieve,” she wrote. Upon reading Grady’s message, Sessions urges DOJ officials to do everything they can to help move children’s cases more quickly in order to avoid having to slow down prosecutions: “We are in post 9/11 mode. All is asap.”

Rosenstein forwards Sessions an email indicating a decline in CBP apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the border. Sessions responds by praising the reduction in border crossings and encourages increased prosecution, saying “we are in a virtuous cycle.” 

June 3
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon is denied permission to tour a private detention center for unaccompanied minors in Brownsville, Texas. 

June 4
DOJ public affairs officer Devin O’Malley emails department officials including Hamilton, Bash, David Wetmore, and Steven Engel a Politico story on internal administration “tensions” around family separation. “Thanks to this team for your feedback,” he writes. “This entire story was a hit piece on Sec. Nielsen and the zero tolerance policy. It’s clear there are individuals within DHS who disagree with the policy and are trying to send a signal to folks that it is potentially ripe for a lawsuit.” 

Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan orders the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas to submit a list of all separated children, their whereabouts, and the plan for reuniting them with their parents. When the U.S. Attorney asks that CBP begin regularly providing this information, CBP responds that they don’t have the information because Border Patrol “does not keep track.” HHS had set up a hotline to reunite parents, but the CBP reports that the “hotline does not work.”

DHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman emails Secretary Nielsen, Chief of Staff Wolf, and Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Christine Ciccone with the subject line “Hill stunts”: “Ma’am – Heads up on the below. Senator Merkley is trying to do ‘visits’ to family detention facilities. Ice and cbp are aware.”

Quinn tells McAleenan that “CRCL has over 100 recent allegations of separations.”

Chad Mizelle, then a White House associate counsel, convenes a meeting of DOJ, DHS, OMB, and White House lawyers to discuss “detention space issues.”

June 5
A meeting at DOJ on “UAC policies” appears on the calendar of DHS Deputy General Counsel Dimple Shah.

June 13
An official in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas emails top DOJ officials that “we have two judges (maybe more) that are demanding from the prosecutors [in cases that involve] the separation of children … [that] the AUSA inform the court where the child is and how they are going to be reunited. We have advised verbally and in writing that there is no way for the AUSAs (and for that matter the BP agents) to know the answer to that.” 

June 14
Ciccone plans a tour of the San Diego Port of Entry for members of Congress. Wolf asks her to “focus on conditions, what they tell minors and parents when they separate, how they communicate while separated, process to reunify, etc.”

Jonathan Hoffman adds: “The tour needs to focus on the process. What actually happens. Kids can call parents – it’s more a function of the prisons the parents are in as to whether they can talk to the kids (like any other prison setting for adults). Reuniting from the centers – if that happens frequently – would be another good area for the tour to focus on.” 

White House official May Davis, reportedly an ally of Stephen Miller, circulates an email with the subject line “Border Security Messaging” to recipients in the White House, the Justice Department, and the State Department. 

June 15
CNN reports that DHS has separated 2,000 children from their parents at the southern border.

U.S. attorneys at the border, under instructions from Rosenstein, send a list of questions about the separation and reunification procedures to their local DHS officials; they don’t receive answers.

Ralph Drollinger, leader of the Trump cabinet’s Bible study group, emails a note of support to Sessions, who cited the Bible in support of the family separation policy in a speech the day before. “Mr. AG, you have taken the right position; you are upholding our laws; you are biblical,” writes Drollinger. 

June 17
Secretary Nielsen claims on Twitter, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.

June 18
ProPublica releases an audio recording of separated children crying out for their parents, deepening public outcry over family separations. 

DHS officials prepare a response to a letter from former first ladies, who called family separation “immoral,” “disgraceful” and a “humanitarian crisis.” Deputy Chief of Staff Miles Taylor writes that the response “should address their concerns, show compassion, and seek to enlist their support.”

June 19
Rosenstein asks whether DHS maintains a master list of separated children that DOJ can use to help children in HHS custody communicate with their parents; he’s told such a list does not exist.

Chad Wolf asks top DHS staff including John Mitnick, Dimple Shah, Jonathan Hoffman, Christine Ciccone, and James McCament to come up with legislative language ending family separation: “Need to get a broad outline of legislative language that we would need to see passed that would curtail the separation of families as a result of zero tolerance. The Hill is coming up with some bad ideas … . Let’s aim for an outline (not actual language) later this morning.” 

June 20
President Trump, after claiming that family separations could not be ended by executive order, issues an order ending the administration’s family separation policy. By this time, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents under the policy.

ICE’s Tracy Short sends Chad Wolf a Wikipedia page on the Ursula detention center, the conditions of which press reports had described as overcrowded and poor. Short asks, “Do you want more info from CBP?”

June 23
Miles Taylor emails top DHS officials that Secretary Nielsen “is very interested on what
we can do to say we are getting … parents into ATD [Alternatives to Detention] even if we have to let them go and speeding up processing.”

Miller and Julia Hahn arrange for Hamilton to brief Sen. James Lankford. Hamilton sends the senator a document he compiled on the “Crisis at the Southwest Border,” asking that Lankford not attribute it to him or DOJ. The document included criticism of limits on the government’s ability to detain families at the border. In a congressional hearing three days later, Lankford criticizes the Flores settlement.

June 25
A CRCL compliance staffer sends Quinn an email detailing the process for dealing with allegations of family separation, saying that the office had encountered “many examples” of CBP keeping incomplete records of separated family members. 

June 26
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issues a preliminary injunction requiring that the United States reunite children younger than 5 with their parents within two weeks and older children within 30 days.

June 27
White House staff and DHS officials, including Dimple Shah, Chad Wolf, and Miles Taylor, attend a meeting about “next steps” on immigration.

JULY 2018

July 2
Miller and Wolf arrange a phone call after exchanging emails about expedited approval on a “revised Flores rule.” 

July 3
NBC reports that the Trump administration is forcing migrants, even those awaiting asylum determinations, to sign a form agreeing either to be removed from the country with their children or to be removed on their own while their children stay and proceed with asylum claims. “The agents are instructed to read the form in a language the immigrant understands, which usually means Spanish, but it can be hard to find Americans who know the indigenous languages spoken by many migrants,” NBC reports.

July 5
CRCL’s Veronica Venture tells ICE officials Tae Johnson and Nathalie Asher that her office is receiving reports that “ICE doesn’t seem to be providing effective language assistance” in “administering its new form on family reunification prior to removal,” including “reports of Brazilians being given the form in Spanish without Portuguese interpretation.” She also tells them that the office has received “allegations about children with disabilities being separated from their parents without proper care being in place to take care of them.”

July 6
Cameron Quinn tells her staff that she has heard that HHS is “getting better focus on” the number of children in its care who have been separated from their parents.

July 9
Two medical experts who have contracted with CRCL to inspect of DHS family detention facilities send a letter to Quinn, saying that family separation is “an act of state sponsored child abuse.” They note that they have already filed a complaint with the DHS inspector general, and later send a version of their letter to Congress.

AUGUST 2018

Aug. 9
Secretary Nielsen forwards an exchange with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and others to top DHS officials. In a message that DHS failed to fully redact, she appears to ask for their thoughts on “Flores restriction and what is recommendation on how to mitigate.”

Aug. 17
A federal judge rules that the government can give immigrant parents the choice to separate from their children or remain in detention together. Miller writes to Hamilton that they “should discuss” the ruling.

Aug. 18
The White House policy coordinator circulates two versions of a draft reunification plan, one from DOJ and one with edits from DHS and HHS, ahead of a discussion with Nielsen, Azar, Sullivan, Rosenstein, Miller, Kelly, and the White House Counsel’s Office.

Aug. 23
Quinn forwards a complaint about family separation–related abuses to McAleenan and Acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello, copying DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. She writes that “while some of what’s in this is a difference in view as to appropriate policy, some of the allegations, if true, about CBP or ICE employees’ behavior is troubling.” 

Aug. 31
Jonathan White, commander of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, is informed by staff that HHS has conducted 81 DNA tests in order to reunite families.

SEPTEMBER 2018

Sept. 6
The Trump administration proposes withdrawing from the Flores agreement, which limits the amount of time families can be held in immigration detention, and replacing it with a rule allowing the lengthier detentions of families.

Sept. 27
The DHS Inspector General finds that DHS “was not fully prepared to implement” the zero-tolerance policy, detained children for lengthy periods of time, and “struggled to identify, track, and reunify families” separated under the policy because of a lack of integration among federal tracking systems.

DECEMBER 2018

Dec. 20
In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Secretary Nielsen continues to claim that the administration had no family separation policy.

2019

OCTOBER 2019

Oct. 25
A new count of children separated from their families early in the Trump administration puts the total number of separated children above 5,400.

NOVEMBER 2019

Nov. 25
The DHS inspector general reports that “DHS estimated that Border Patrol agents separated 3,014 children from their families.” However, the IG finds hundreds more potential cases of family separation: “Without a reliable account of all family relationships, we could not validate the total number of separations, or reunifications.” 

2020

OCTOBER 2020

Oct. 21
Court documents reveal that the government has still failed to find the parents of 545 children separated from their families under the Trump administration’s policy, including 60 children who were under the age of 5 when they were separated. That number later rises to 666 children.

Updated Documents

Memo Containing “Information for Parents and Children”

This undated document states:

  • “Each case is unique and individual experiences will vary, but family units generally will not be permanently separated, information on the location and welfare of children in the custody of Department of Health and Human Services will be provided to parents, and communication between families will be facilitated.”
  • “[A]s required under The Trafficking Victims Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008 …, which states that: ‘Except in the case of exceptional circumstances, any department or agency of the Federal Government that has an unaccompanied alien child in custody [who is not statutorily eligible to withdraw his or her application for admission] shall transfer the custody of such child to the Secretary of Health and Human Services not later than 72 hours after determining that such child is an unaccompanied alien child.’”
  • “In addition, when adults are placed into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, ICE will maintain careful coordination of their cases and custody status.”
  • “In addition, the ERO Child Welfare Team at ERO Headquarters has established a robust coordination process to help ensure that ORR is kept apprised of the custody and immigration status of alien parents and/or guardians who are going through the removal process. The ERO Child Welfare Team will provide trauma-informed care training for all ERO officers staffing the [South Texas Detention Center].”

NUMBER OF CHILDREN IN SECURE PLACEMENT
American Oversight obtained a spreadsheet listing the number, sex, and age of children in secure facilities. According to the spreadsheet, as of March 2019, 366 were admitted.