A government watchdog report has concluded that leaders in President Donald Trump's Justice Department were aware that their zero-tolerance policy would trigger family separations but nevertheless moved forward with prosecutions.
The report from the inspector general for the Justice Department, released Thursday, found that the agency's leaders failed to effectively coordinate with other parts of government or manage the outcome.
More than 3,000 families were separated, resulting in long-term emotional damage to children who were forcibly taken from their parents by U.S. authorities at the border.
The Trump administration policy drew widespread condemnation, with world leaders, elected officials and religious groups denouncing the policy as cruel.
The policy was one of several aimed at preventing migrants from entering the U.S. by crossing the southern border the U.S. shares with Mexico. The report details the key role played by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top Justice Department officials as they were pressured by the White House.
Biden plan unclear
President-elect Joe Biden has said Trump's immigration policies are destructive, but it is not clear how Biden will address the issue when he assumes the presidency on January 20.
An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit resulted in families being reunited, but some children remain separated from their families.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told The Associated Press the practice was "immoral and illegal."
"At a minimum, Justice Department lawyers should have known the latter. This new report shows just how far the Trump administration was willing to go to destroy these families. Just when you think the Trump administration can't sink any lower, it does," he said.
The New York Times on Thursday said a White House spokesperson declined to comment on the report, although Rod J. Rosenstein, a former top Justice Department official involved in the zero-tolerance policy, was regretful about his involvement with the program.
Justice Department response
However, the report does include a response from the Justice Department, which said, "While the Department does not agree with all of the analysis and conclusions contained in the formal draft report, it does concur with the OIG's three recommendations."
"Consistent with the OIG's first recommendation, the Department will examine and modify as necessary its procedures to make certain that prior to issuing a significant policy affecting multiple Department of Justice components, other Executive Branch agencies, or the courts, the Department as appropriate will coordinate directly with affected stakeholders to ensure effective implementation," the response reads.
"Consistent with the OIG's second and third recommendations, the Department and U.S Marshals Service (USMS) in particular will work with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that policies and agreements are in place to facilitate necessary communication between parents and children if parents are separated from associated family unit minors at the time DHS makes a criminal arrest and refers the adults to the Department for prosecution," the statement added.
Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents, who have either been deported or cannot be located.