Family separation, one of the Trump administration’s harshest and most controversial policies, was carried out with a startling lack of planning, coordination, or oversight, even after officials spent months laying the groundwork for the policy. Part of Trump’s hallmark “zero tolerance” initiative, the policy formalized the separation of children from parents as a deliberately cruel measure to attempt to deter future migrants. Documents obtained by American Oversight provide further evidence of a staggering 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.
American Oversight launched investigations 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. On Tuesday, we published 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.
Documents from DHS as well as its component agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reveal that family separations were executed with breakdowns in communication, even as the topic claimed an amount of attention at odds with the administration’s public statements downplaying the policy. High-ranking officials seemed unprepared to handle the policy’s impact. And throughout these documents, we see little concern for the children whom the administration tore from their parents.
Early outlines for the implementation of this zero-tolerance policy show that family separation was executed with little coordination or care for the human consequences. Documents containing email threads from March 2017 show us that Kirstjen Nielsen, then DHS chief of staff, and her associates were unprepared for the response to the Reuters story that first reported that the administration was considering separating families. An individual whose name is redacted shared the article with Allen Blume, budget director at DHS, saying, “Allen – I would be truly grateful if you could tell me this isn’t being seriously considered.” Blume forwarded the email to Kevin McAleenan, then acting commissioner of CBP, who shared it with Nielsen. Nielsen replied, “Can we reach out to [redacted]? Also what is our TP [talking point] here? (And what is the inside story?)”
An undated memo titled “Information for Parents and Children,” which appears to have been written shortly after the April 2018 announcement of the zero-tolerance policy and was included in documents we received from DHS headquarters, said that “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.” In reality, some children were left in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services while their parents were deported, and the federal government struggled to track children, who were now labeled “unaccompanied,” after they had been separated from their families.
The memo also said, “Except in the case of exceptional circumstances, any department or agency of the Federal Government that has an unaccompanied alien child in custody … 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.” Congressional investigators later found that some children had been held in border facilities for up to a week, in potential violation of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which set standards for the detention and release of children in DHS custody.
High-ranking DHS officials — including current acting Secretary Chad Wolf — sometimes appeared unprepared for the tragic consequences of the family-separation policy. Tracy Short, principal legal adviser at ICE, sent an email to then-DHS Chief of Staff Wolf in June 2018 with a snippet from the Wikipedia page on the Ursula Central Processing Center, CBP’s largest detention center and the epicenter of family detention. Short asked Wolf if he wanted “more info” from CBP.
To make matters worse, the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) at DHS was seemingly left in the dark about the family-separation policy and the administration’s plans for safeguarding the rights of the children separated from their families. The documents show that on April 6, 2018 — the day then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy — Deputy Officer for CRCL Veronica Venture reached out to Deputy Undersecretary James McCament to discuss the “over 1,000 complaints” of family separations that the office was handling. “As you may or may not be aware, CRCL has received an enormous volume of matters alleging inappropriate family separations and is preparing to issue recommendations on the topic,” Venture wrote, “but we are not clear on the Department’s broader perspective on family separation and whether a formal change in policy is likely.”
American Oversight also submitted a FOIA request to DHS for the recommendations mentioned in that email. ICE responded saying it had “no responsive records,” suggesting that CRCL’s recommendations, if finalized, were at the very least not shared with ICE.
Despite the confusion around the family-separation policy, a January 2018 memo from CRCL shows that DHS was aware of the serious issues that emerged in early family separations. On Jan. 23, Dana Salvano-Dunn, a deputy officer at CRCL, sent Cameron Quinn, a CRCL officer, a “brief write-up regarding the forthcoming CRCL recommendation for a DHS/HHS family separation work group.” The memo was based on 27 of 950 “family separation matters” since 2016 that it had investigated.
Some of the problems cited include:
In short, DHS knew that grievous problems existed even when family separations were happening at a smaller scale, and appears to have done nothing to fix these issues before the government started separating hundreds of children from their families.
Despite officials like former Secretary Nielsen repeatedly denying publicly that the Trump administration had an official family-separation policy, documents reveal that internally, officials were frequently discussing the subject along with specific instances of family separation. As early as March 7, 2017, Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Dimple Shah emailed then-Counselor to the Secretary Gene Hamilton asking to “discuss the ‘separating families’ issues raised at the morning huddle.”
On Dec. 11, 2017, just 5 days after Kirstjen Nielsen was sworn in as secretary, ICE Chief of Staff Thomas Blank emailed Debbie Seguin, program manager at ICE, and two others to report that Nielsen had asked ICE to draft decision memos on “separating Family Units and on vetting sponsors” for minors in the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. “Neither of these are new and I believe [decision memos] have previously been drafted,” Blank wrote. In a follow-up email, he specified, “It would have been in the early September timeframe,” and later that day, staff found two memos from the Office of Policy — a “signed family separation memo” and a signed “UAC re-designation memo.”
Emails show that family separation was also discussed as a potential “solution” to the so-called caravan of Central American migrants in March 2018. In an email discussion spurred by a message from the conservative anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies to White House officials, Francis Cissna, then director of USCIS, said, “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.”
USCIS Adviser Kaitlin Vogt Stoddard responded with “the main points of concern” that she said had been laid out by USCIS officials Jennifer Higgins and John Lafferty. Stoddard wrote that potential “solutions” included actions to terminate the Flores Settlement, adding, “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 mentioned sending the Higgins and Lafferty analysis to the USCIS press shop, Cissna warned, “Don’t think we’d want to say the highlighted portion publicly” (it is unclear which portion he is referring to). These early conversations demonstrate that officials not only were aware of how controversial separating families would be; they also recognized that the separation of families was exactly what the new policy aimed to do.
As DHS began to split more families apart and as the situation became more dire, emails showed concern among top DHS officials not for the welfare of the children in their custody but for the public appearance of their actions. Documents from show that high-ranking officials were looped in to carefully plan for congressional tours of detention facilities. In one email from June 2018, former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman discussed a Senate facility visit with Wolf and Assistant Secretary Christine Ciccone, saying, “Reuniting from the centers – if that happens frequently – would be another good area for the tour to focus on.”
Later in this document, in a thread with the subject line, “Stories,” DHS Deputy Chief of Staff Miles Taylor asked, “Do we have any more examples that we can provide to [Secretary Nielsen] of the types of instances where this separation has to happen?” Katie Waldman (now Miller), then DHS press secretary, replied with an anecdotal list of descriptions of people allegedly posing as families or using forged paperwork to gain entry.
Our findings are not surprising, as they reflect the chaos and obfuscation we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration. This turmoil had lasting repercussions — including on the children in DHS custody. While such large-scale family separation may have officially ended, the administration’s cruelty toward immigrants has taken new forms like the Migrant Protection Protocols that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico. We will continue to seek documents to create a historical record of the injustice faced by many migrant families.
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