THE TRUMP administration’s immorality, cruelty and bureaucratic malpractice in tearing migrant toddlers, tweens and teens away from their parents in 2017 and 2018 were the work of many co-conspirators, most of them faithfully carrying out the wishes of the president himself. A draft report by the Justice Department’s inspector general has made that clear. Perhaps even more shocking is that policy’s present-day legacy: More than 500 children who, having been wrenched from their families by U.S. government officials with no plan or mechanism ever to reunite them, remain separated.
That is the case despite years of efforts to track down parents who were, in many cases, deported after their children were seized and placed with family sponsors in the United States. For all intents and purposes, these children were kidnapped by the U.S. government.
In fact, it has not even been the U.S. government that has tried to reunite these sundered families. That has been the work of a court-appointed body organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nongovernmental organization. The ACLU, in effect, was put in charge of trying to fix what the Trump administration shattered — the lives of hundreds of children and families. Even now, the parents of 545 separated children cannot be located, despite the efforts of lawyers and advocates, according to a new court filing.
To its authors in the Trump administration, the child separation policy was justified in the name of inflicting such emotional trauma on migrant families that further illegal crossing of the southern border would be deterred.
That was the clear takeaway from the report of the Justice Department’s inspector general, a draft of which was reviewed by the New York Times. The report, whose final contours are unlikely to change significantly, paints a stomach-wrenching portrait of indifference and indecency on the part of U.S. officials. In the end, the policy was abandoned only when Americans, in overwhelming numbers, expressed their outrage at images and accounts of children torn from their families.
In what the Times cites as a 32-page response to the report by Gene Hamilton, a top Justice Department lawyer, the impetus for the family separation policy comes into focus. It was Mr. Trump himself who, in an April 2018 meeting with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, demanded a blitz of prosecutions to deter further border crossings.
Some federal prosecutors along the border balked at bringing charges against migrant parents whose children would automatically be removed from their care. But at Justice, top officials washed their hands of ethical responsibility regarding the children’s welfare. “I just don’t see that as a [Justice Department] equity,” Rod J. Rosenstein, then-deputy attorney general, told the inspector general.
In a sense, Mr. Rosenstein was right: The job of protecting blameless children from emotional trauma is not a government “equity”; it is a human obligation. It is basic human decency, which was lacking in all the senior officials who helped implement this unspeakably callous policy."