A report released by the Justice Department’s inspector general in mid-January lays bare the department’s disorganization and miscommunication in implementing former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy, which led to the separation of more than 3,000 migrant children from their parents, 648 of whom the government has still failed to reunite.
According to the inspector general report, Justice Department officials were under pressure from the White House, where notoriously anti-immigrant Senior Adviser Stephen Miller served as the architect of many of former President Donald Trump’s harshest immigration restrictions. And while officials throughout the Trump administration share the blame for the cruel policy and its disastrous results — and many have attempted to wash their hands of it — the Justice Department inspector general also makes clear that the policy was implemented out of the Office of the Attorney General and that Sessions’ office was a “driving force” behind it.
The report reveals that a key figure behind the conceptualization of and implementation of the family separation policy was Gene Hamilton, a counselor to the attorney general who had previously worked at the Department of Homeland Security.
While Hamilton attempted to downplay his role in the policy in interviews with the inspector general, the report cites documentary evidence showing his close involvement in its design and rollout. What the report doesn’t mention is Hamilton’s close working relationship with Miller, who had previously worked for Sessions in the Senate and was reportedly a key advocate in the White House for separating migrant families.
Documents obtained by American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveal frequent contact between Miller and Hamilton throughout early 2018, when the U.S. government was systematically separating families at the border.
These documents show that Miller frequently reached out to Hamilton for help fleshing out new anti-immigrant policy ideas, and also sought his help amplifying news stories of criminal allegations against immigrants in an effort to paint a false picture for the public of immigrants as dangerous. Because the emails we obtained are heavily redacted — and often contain just a request for a phone call — it’s difficult to piece together a paper trail of Miller’s involvement in family separation. However, by comparing Miller’s contacts with outside events, we’re able to see that he was in frequent contact with Hamilton and other players during critical moments in the implementation of the policy.
On April 6, 2018, the day Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy at the border, Miller and a number of fellow White House staffers participated in an email exchange about the White House Counsel’s Office effort to draft “Flores regulations,” which was forwarded to Hamilton the next day. The Flores settlement protects the rights of children in immigration detention, including restricting the number of days they can be held in custody, and proved to be a stumbling block in the administration’s family separation efforts; later in the year, the administration proposed new regulations gutting the settlement.
Throughout that same week, Miller exchanged multiple emails and phone calls with Hamilton, including urging him to speak with Kevin McAleenan, then the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the department that would be charged with referring adults traveling with children for DOJ prosecution. On May 9, a few days after DHS had begun implementing zero tolerance and Sessions had announced that the policy would lead to the separation of children accompanying parents, Miller had another call with Hamilton.
In late May, as the administration came under increased public pressure to end the family separation policy, Miller was in contact with Hamilton, McAleenan, and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which was charged with caring for children who had been separated from their parents. On May 27, he responded to an email chain with Hamilton and other officials within DOJ, DHS, and HHS asking for a conference call. The subject line of the email chain was “Family Separation.” Later that day, Miller and Hamilton went back and forth on edits to a White House press statement on family separation that was to go out under the name of spokesman Hogan Gidley. The next day, Gidley issued a statement defending Trump’s attempts to lay the blame of family separation on Democrats.
Also on May 28, Miller emailed McAleenan and then-DHS Chief of Staff Chad Wolf about unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. from “non-contiguous” countries. “Until there are removals the crisis will never end,” he wrote.
Even after the Trump administration formally ended the family separation policy in June 2018, Miller stayed in touch with Hamilton about matters related to family separation. In July of that year, Hamilton and Miller discussed updates in the ACLU’s legal challenge to family separation. The next month, they discussed the possibility of implementing “binary choice,” a system under which parents would be given the choice between being separated from their children or detained together for potentially lengthy periods.
As former Trump officials attempt to distance themselves from the administration’s most heinous policies, American Oversight will continue to investigate who was involved in the separation of families and other troubling immigration policies. Information about Hamilton’s contacts with anti-immigration extremist groups is available here, and we’ve also published detailed timelines of the family separation policy and of Miller’s communications as found in public records.
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