Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on FY2019 Department of Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 11, 2018.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on FY2019 Department of Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 11, 2018.

A newly released memo obtained by Open The Government (OTG) and Project on Government Oversight (POGO) through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) shows that the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed off on the policy of separating parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to the document dated April 23, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was presented with three options to step up immigration enforcement at the border. 

U.S. officials recommended "Option 3," which entailed to prosecute every adult who crossed the border illegally, including those in family units with children, because it would be the "most effective method to achieve operation objectives and the administration's goal to end catch and release." 

Online news organization The Intercept reported on the memo and wrote that even though the signature on the document is redacted, a DHS spokesperson confirmed it was signed by Nielsen.

The memo is notable because Nielsen posted on Twitter in June, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period." 

DHS Spokeswoman Katie Waldman told VOA that the memo does not actually establish a policy. The “memo simply states the premise that DHS has the legal authority to take an action –  however, it did not direct a policy of family separation for the purposes of deterrence," Waldman wrote.

182 still separated

Besides the memo, other communications on family separation were released through the FOIA to both watchdog groups and also shared with The Intercept. Both organizations also obtained an "unredacted copy of the memo, which at the request of their sources, is not being published."

Separating families was part of the Trump administration's Zero Tolerance policy under which those detained upon illegally entering the United States were being criminally charged, a policy that led to children being separated from their parents. Under U.S. law, children cannot stay with a parent facing criminal charges. 

After an international outcry, Trump halted the breakup of families, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But the order left government officials unprepared to deal with the reunification of families where children had their parents had already been separated. 

According to the same documents, at least 182 children still remain separated from their parents.

The Washington Post had reported on the memo before Nielsen added her signature.