In emails sent during the early months of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their families, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the policy’s results and discussed religious justifications for the harsh policy.
On June 2, 2018, one month after Sessions announced the official implementation of the “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein forwarded Sessions an email indicating a decline in U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the border.
“Thanks,” Sessions (using the pseudonym “Camden Hybart”) responded the next day. “I’m very interested in this. Keep on it. Every decline in [entries] is huge reducing those who got past border too. With the decline and continued prosecution numbers the percentage goes up and we are in virtuous cycle. We have to do all we can to help with [unaccompanied migrant children]. Every little bit helps. … Keep at it!!”
Rosenstein replied that the U.S. Marshals Service was “able to handle the increased volume,” and that “[t]hey are moving detainees around 7 days a week to maintain space at border facilities.”
“Need that California prison reopened ASAP,” Sessions responded. “Goal should be to get above 2000 a week while enhancing prosecution of transporters et al too. Increased pressure on all fronts we may hope will bend curve. I really like the game plan that produces immediate intelligence and results in immediate action. That’s the key. Looks like the President has all of us focused.”
That same day, Sessions wrote, “We are in post-9/11 mode,” in an email to Justice Department official Gene Hamilton. “All is asap.”
The emails were released to American Oversight in response to Freedom of Information Act litigation for records related to the Trump administration’s practice of separating families, part of the zero-tolerance policy ordered by Sessions in April 2018. The policy required that all adult migrants who crossed the border without permission be prosecuted and detained during removal proceedings, with no exception for those seeking to claim asylum or those traveling with minors.
In the process, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that more than 5,500 children were separated from their families between July 2017 and the end of the Trump presidency. The policy was a highly visible piece of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance. As detention centers filled up, hundreds of children were moved by the Department of Health and Human Services to “tent cities” with poor conditions. It is estimated that up to 2,000 parents could still be waiting to reunite with their children.
The emails obtained by American Oversight not only reveal Sessions’s celebration of one of the Trump administration’s cruelest policies; they also provide insight into how he used religion to justify the program’s human cost.
In a speech defending the policies on June 14, 2018, Sessions cited Romans 13, a Bible verse about being subject to governing authorities. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful,” he said, adding that “policies that can result in short-term separation of families” were “not unusual or unjustified.”
The next day, Ralph Drollinger, who led the Trump cabinet’s Bible study group, sent a note of support via email to Sessions. “Mr. AG, you have taken the right position; you are upholding our laws; you are biblical,” he wrote. “No one is forcing people to come across our borders; if they want to keep their family together, then they shouldn’t cross illegally. It is not as if America is forcing folks to come into our country illegally.”
Sessions thanked Drollinger, adding that he “may call to get theological advice.” Drollinger responded, referencing the “biblical differentiations between a countryman, sojourner and illegal.” He also criticized evangelist Franklin Graham, who had condemned family separation: “These are the kinds of situations/biblical nuances where Franklin Graham’s lack of seminary prep really comes out.”
On June 18, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins sent an email to Sessions’s then-chief of staff Matt Whitaker with an article written by anti-LGBTQ theology professor Robert Gagnon in support of family separation.
The records also indicate that the administration utilized the CBP’s Migration Crisis Action Team as a central hub of data and situational updates in the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy.
President Trump signed an executive order halting the family separation policy on June 20, 2018, but that did not end the administration’s harsh anti-immigration stance.
In early 2019, the administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols, which required asylum-seekers who arrived at the southern border to return to Mexico to wait for their claim to be processed. Also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, this program forced more than 70,000 asylum-seekers, including children, into dangerous migrant camps along the border, where access to legal representation was severely limited. The Biden administration has sought to end the policy, reportedly renewing its efforts in recent weeks following a federal judge’s August ruling that the policy must remain in place.
Records obtained by American Oversight shed light on how quickly the Trump administration appears to have pivoted to this new anti-immigration measure. The day after Trump’s executive order was signed, White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller emailed Chad Wolf, then chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, to share a tweet from Trump in which the president, referring to people seeking asylum, claimed that migrants were “com[ing] into our country based on the legal phrase they are told to say as their password.” After Wolf responded, Miller sent another email that said, “Return to territory.”
For more on American Oversight’s investigation into the Trump administration’s family separation policy and the detention of migrant children, visit our investigation page and our timeline of documents.