A memo signed by Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen contradicts statements she made at the height of the family separation crisis last spring that the administration did not have a policy of separating children from parents.
Nielsen signed off on the option to prosecute all adults who crossed the border illegally, including those with kids, knowing it would lead to family separations. The administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which sought to prosecute every adult caught crossing the border illegally, resulted in thousands of families being separated, with some parents being deported without their children.
“DHS could also permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted,” the memo said.
When the administration was under fire for the family separations Nielsen told reporters “This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border.” Yet, the memo she signed states the effect of attempting to prosecute every adult at the border would result in children being separated from their parents.
The memo was reported on by the Washington Post in April, but this is the first time the document has been made public. It was obtained by Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the memo simply states the premise that the agency has the legal authority to take an action.
"However, it did not direct a policy of family separation for the purposes of deterrence. Conflating authority vs. actual policy based on a redacted memo provides a disservice to the public and does not show the full picture of considerations presented to the Secretary," said Waldman in a statement.
Katherine Hawkins, an investigator at POGO, said in a statement that the redacted documents are a small part of what must be an extensive paper trail on family separation. She called for the release of more documents “so that the officials responsible can be held to account.”
The memo was sent by Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services L. Francis Cissna, and Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan. It’s stamped with an April 23 date.
The document also says that illegal immigration at the US–Mexico border is on the rise. Noting that immigrant families detained at the border or deemed inadmissible at ports of entry, like asylum-seekers, averaged 450 per day over the previous 21 days. The immigration officials also said that family units encountered between April 18 and 19 reached the highest level since 2016 at almost 700 per day.
The number of immigrants at the borders this year is higher than 2017’s but that year was an outlier. The numbers are coming off historically low numbers of apprehensions in 2017, and in fact are consistent with the number of people detained trying to cross the US–Mexico border in recent years that started dropping, for the most part, during the administration of President George W. Bush.
This year’s apprehension numbers for March, April, and May are on par with figures for those same months in 2013, 2014, and 2016, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.
Kirstjen Nielsen’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.