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. 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 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 both its public statements about the policy and internal discussions we uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act.
John Lafferty (then the USCIS asylum chief) reportedly briefs asylum officers on a proposal to separate families.
Reuters reports that the Trump administration is considering a family separation proposal. A person who appears to be an Appropriations Committee staffer emails the story to Allen Blume (DHS budget director): “Allen- I would be truly grateful if you could tell me this isn’t being seriously considered.”
An Appropriations Committee staffer, possibly the same who emailed on March 3, emails Blume and Kevin McAleenan (then CBP commissioner): “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.”
McAleenan forwards the exchange to Kirstjen Nielsen (then chief of staff, DHS), Thomas Homan (then acting director, ICE) and Gene Hamilton (then counselor to the secretary, DHS). Nielsen asks Jonathan Hoffman (then DHS assistant secretary for public affairs) and others, “[W]hat is our TP here?” and “[W]hat is inside story?”
John Kelly (then DHS secretary) tells CNN that the administration is considering family separation as an immigration deterrent.
Dimple Shah (assistant secretary for international affairs, DHS) emails Gene Hamilton to request that they “discuss the ‘separating families’ issues raised at the morning huddle.”
Secretary Kelly reportedly tells Senate Democrats during a March 29 meeting that the administration does not intend to separate families.
Attorney General Sessions circulates a memo that prioritizes prosecution of immigration cases.
Several USCIS officials, including John Lafferty, circulate a backgrounder on credible fear claims from the hardline immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies.
DHS begins quietly testing a family-separation policy in the El Paso sector.
John Kelly becomes White House chief of staff, and Elaine Duke becomes acting secretary of DHS.
Gene Hamilton leads a group of DHS staff in creating proposals for deterring illegal immigration, including a proposed family-separation policy.
Scott Lloyd (then director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement) sends an email to Ken Tota (deputy director, HHS Administration for Children and Families) and Laura Gregg (ORR senior adviser) with the subject line “Refugee Costs.” (These emails were obtained in response to a FOIA request for records mentioning White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, suggesting that Miller’s name is likely concealed under one or more of the redactions.)
A memo from the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) to CBP covering the 2016 fiscal year indicated that CRCL received the following numbers of complaints alleging due process violations, largely related to allegations of family separation: Rio Grande Valley, 196; El Paso, 39; Hidalgo, 36.
According to the New York Times, a Border Patrol agent wrote to the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, “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.”
Jonathan Hoffman, assistant 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) [Tracy] 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 was then ICE’s principal legal adviser.)
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.
A quarterly meeting agenda for CRCL discusses its 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.
Acting CBP Commissioner McAleenan receives a “Daily Media Summary,” which includes a Buzzfeed story about an immigrant father separated from his son. 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.”
CRCL staff send an email to Officer Cameron Quinn with the subject line “Summary of Family Separation Investigation.”
Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in as DHS secretary.
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, then the acting under secretary 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.”
James Nealon weighs in on a “UAC options paper” in an exchange with ICE’s Tracy Short, DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf, Briana Petyo (then the chief of staff in the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans) and Michael Dougherty (the assistant secretary for border, immigration, and trade policy).
Press reports later indicate that a draft policy memo dated Dec. 16, 2017, titled “Policy Options to Respond to Border Surge of Illegal Immigration,” is “circulated between high level officials at DHS and the Justice Department.” One Justice Department official reportedly suggests denying asylum hearings to children.
The Washington Post reports that the administration is (again) considering family separation.
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.” Cameron Quinn suggests that CRCL “open 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.”
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.”
According to the New York Times, top Justice Department officials asks 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 reportedly did not receive a follow-up, and assuming the idea had been abandoned did not provide the information.
Jan. 24, 2018
Dana Salvano-Dunn (CRCL deputy officer) sends Cameron Quinn a “brief write-up regarding the forthcoming CRCL recommendation for a DHS/HHS family separation work group.”
The memo was based on CRCL’s investigation of 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 National Security Council convenes a meeting (the topic of which is redacted) involving ORR’s Scott Lloyd, John Zadrozny (special assistant to the president), Gene Hamilton (at this time counselor to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions), and a number of high-level DHS officials.
Nielsen, Wolf, and other DHS officials attend a “HHS MOU Briefing.”
The ACLU files suit on behalf of Ms. L, the Congolese woman separated from her daughter in San Diego.
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 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’s note- ‘Every major outlet asked about specifics on Wednesday.’ This is also one of the stories I asked about last week.”
In response to a question from a reporter, ICE’s Tracy Short asks 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.
Deputy DHS Secretary Elaine Duke attends a “DNA Briefing.”
Chad Wolf writes to Thomas 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.”
Chad Wolf has a call with Ryan Scudder (acting chief patrol agent, CBP): “Ryan wanted to touch base with you regarding the meeting you requested to take place regarding ‘Separating Children and Families.’ He had a question regarding the fingerprinting component.”
Silver Prout (Confidential Assistant to Chief of Staff, DHS) tells Chad Wolf that Tracy Short and Ryan Scudder need to touch base with Wolf on an upcoming “meeting to discuss the issue of family separation as well as DNA and fingerprinting Issues.”
Dana Salvano-Dunn sends an email to Cameron Quinn indicating that CRCL was 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.”
Cameron Quinn emails Jennifer Sultan (then CRCL director of programs) about a meeting on the topic of “Request for Action on Family,” which she assumes to be related to “F [family] separation.” Sultan waits to schedule the meeting until Dana Salvano-Dunn returns to the office, saying that they might want to “hear from Dana about the many CRCL complaints we have related to family separation.”
Citing “increased scrutiny” on family separation, ICE sends guidance to field offices stating that the authority to separate families resides with field office directors and deputy field office directors. It directs officers to pay increased attention to each adult’s case.
Marguerite Telford, communications director for Center for Immigration Studies, emails Theo Wold (special assistant to the president) and John Zadrozny (special assistant to the president) regarding the “caravan” of migrants making their way 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 Cissna is on top of this … we are screening every person? Obama would have waved them in! Mexico is just waving them through … has Mexico been given a heads-up to have a plan to care of all of these folks since we won’t be letting them in. Media is giving it so little coverage … guess they want to increase odds they will make it to the border. We will try to get something out the door.”
A recipient forwards Telford’s note to Francis Cissna (then director of USCIS), 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.”
Kaitlin Vogt Stoddard (then adviser to the director, USCIS) responds with “points of concern” that she says have been laid out by USCIS officials Jennifer Higgins and John Lafferty. Potential “solutions” include “legislative or regulatory actions to terminate the Flores Settlement,” which restricts the amount of time migrant children are to be held in custody. “The other option,” she writes, “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 Higgins/Lafferty 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.
Secretary Nielsen emails 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.”
According to the New York Times, President Trump meets with Gene Hamilton, Attorney General Sessions, and Secretary Nielsen. Hamilton reported that Trump “ranted” and was on a “a tirade,” demanding as many prosecutions as possible.
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.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions orders a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all immigrants 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 end the policy of “catch and release,” which allowed immigrants to be released from detention while awaiting court hearings.
Veronica Venture (CRCL deputy officer) sends James McCament (DHS deputy undersecretary for strategy, policy, and plans) and Assistant Secretary Michael Dougherty an email, 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 Officer Cameron Quinn forwards the email to Evelyn Lim (DHS deputy chief of staff for operations) asking who is working on the issue.
Wolf, McAleenan, Homan and Mitnick have a “Call re: HHS MOU.”
ICE General Counsel John Mitnick emails Secretary Nielsen, Chad 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.
CNN reports that the DHS inspector general will begin an investigation into family separations.
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.”
In response to a press inquiry, DHS works to come up with the number of families who have been separated in custody. Chad Wolf writes, “My frustration on this continues to be at a all time high – I’ve been asking for these numbers for weeks.” Katie Waldman (then DHS deputy press secretary) later tells a reporter, “Since October 2017, ORR has collaborated with OHS in approximately 700 cases to locate parent(s) in DHS custody.”
Secretary Nielsen, Chad Wolf and John Mitnick travel to DOJ headquarters to meet with Attorney General Sessions about “ending catch and release and other immigration/border security measures.”
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, USCIS Director Francis Cissna, and ICE Director Thomas 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.
DHS General Counsel John Mitnick signs a memo to Secretary Nielsen titled “Criminal Prosecution of Aliens Who Entered Unlawfully: Legal Guidance on Potential Separation of Family Members.”
Katie Waldman (then deputy press secretary, DHS) compiles a list for Secretary Nielsen of instances in which “separation has to happen,” comprised mostly of examples of allegedly “fraudulent” families.
According to NBC News, President Trump meets with Attorney General Sessions, Secretary Nielsen, Secretary Azar, Secretary Pompeo, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, White House adviser Stephen Miller, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell, White House Counsel Don McGahn, and Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short. Nielsen says DHS wouldn’t have enough resources to implement zero tolerance without putting children into HHS custody, and warns that children may get lost in the system.
Secretary Nielsen signs a memo instructing DHS to implement “zero tolerance.” According to NBC News, Gary Tomasulo, then the senior director for border and transportation security on the National Security Council, emailed staffers to tell them that higher-ups had agreed to the “zero tolerance” policy and they needed to develop plans to support it.
The Trump administration officially implements the “zero tolerance” family-separation policy. In a speech announcing the policy, Sessions says, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you as required by law.”
A CRCL official emails Officer Cameron Quinn about moving a “family separation recommendations memo” forward.
President Trump criticizes Secretary Nielsen at a cabinet meeting for not doing more to stop immigration across the southern border, saying that she needed to “close down” the border, according to a report the next day in the Washington Post.
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.”
Then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly tells NPR that children separated from their families will be “put into foster care or whatever.”
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.”
CRCL Officer Cameron Quinn emails CBP Commissioner Kevin 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.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon is denied permission to tour a private detention center for unaccompanied minors in Brownsville, Tex. In a readout of Merkley’s visit the same day to the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, Tex. (known informally as Ursula), a CBP official writes: “He asked how long we’ve been separating families. I made it a point to tell him that we’ve separated families for as long as I can remember, especially when it comes to criminal aliens. He said we began doing this latest effor[t] for all families just last summer. I said that may be correct because we (the U.S. Border Patrol) were doing that out in El Paso, Texas. We just began separating all families amenable to prosecution in RGV [Rio Grande Valley] in April.”
Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman emails Secretary Nielsen, Chad Wolf, and Christine Ciccone (DHS assistant secretary for legislative affairs) 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.”
Cameron Quinn tells Kevin McAleenan that “CRCL has over 100 recent allegations of separations.”
Christine Ciccone, assistant secretary for the Office of Legislative Affairs, plans a tour of the San Diego Port of Entry for members of Congress. Chad 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.
CNN reports that DHS has separated 2,000 children from their parents at the southern border.
Secretary Nielsen claims on Twitter, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
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.”
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 left on the own. Let’s aim for an outline (not actual language) later this morning.”
President Trump issues an executive order entitled “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation,” which maintains that family unity is the administration’s 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?”
Deputy Chief of Staff 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.”
Deborah Fleischaker (then CRCL deputy director of compliance) sends Cameron Quinn an email detailing the process for dealing with allegations of family separation, saying that in some cases CBP kept incomplete records. Despite reassurances from CBP, the Form I-213 (Record of Deportable/Inadmissible Alien) did not always contain complete information about family members.
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.
DHS contractor LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, a private intelligence company, compiles and disseminates a list of more than 600 planned protests against family separation scheduled for June 30, according to documents released to American Immigration Council and other groups.
NBC reports that the Trump administration is forcing migrants, even those awaiting asylum determinations, to choose whether to leave the country with or without their kids.
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.”
Cameron Quinn tells her staff that she has heard that HHS is “getting better focus on” the number of children separated from their parents.
Two medical experts who have contracted with CRCL to inspect of DHS family detention facilities send a letter to Cameron 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.
Stephen Miller emails Hunter Morgen (special assistant to the president) and Gary Tomasulo (special assistant to the president). The email is subsequently forwarded to USCIS’s Kathy Nuebel Kovarik and the State Department’s Andrew Veprek, and Veprek responds the next day with a document titled “Refugee and Asylum stats comparison.”
USCIS arranges for Francis Cissna to have a back entrance to an upcoming invite-only event hosted by the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies at the National Press Club so as to avoid protesters or other disturbances.
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.”
Cameron Quinn forwards a complaint about family separation–related abuses to Ronald Vitiello and Kevin McAleenan, copying 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.”
Jonathan White, commander of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, is informed by staff that HHS had conducted 81 DNA tests in order to reunite families.
In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Secretary Nielsen claims that the administration had no family-separation policy.
This undated document states:
We obtained a spreadsheet listing the number, sex, and age of children in secure facilities. As of March 2019, 366 were admitted.