WASHINGTON — In the early months of the Trump administration, senior officials examined the effects of plans to deter immigration at the southern border by separating families and tracking down those undocumented individuals who came forward to pick up unaccompanied children at government shelters, according to a document obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The document, which was part of the House Judiciary Committee’s ongoing requests from the Trump administration on family separation, sheds further light on the administration’s focus since its earliest days on implementing various policies to deter immigration at the southwestern border.
In a memo dated July 4, 2017, Jonathan White, the former deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees unaccompanied minors, laid out how Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to track down certain sponsors — those who pick up unaccompanied children in government facilities — will likely lead to “significant increases in length of stay and decline in discharge rate.”
White appeared to be referencing operations conducted by ICE in 2017 in which agents targeted undocumented sponsors of children in facilities to fight what they described as smuggling of children into the country.
White wrote that such a result would “represent” one-half of the policy changes necessary to fulfill the “‘DHS Deterrence’ scenario model (since family unit separations are not yet being implemented).” That scenario, he said, would lead to a need for more housing for migrant children.
White explained that his office was reviewing whether to alter the model given the policy realities at the time.
Scott Shuchart, a former senior Department of Homeland Security adviser who reviewed the document, said that it appeared the memo was a model for policies that the agency and White House wanted.
“‘Deterrence’ was what they were planning for,” he said.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, said the memo confirms government officials tasked with planning for family separation knew it was about deterrence.
The memo came just a few months after then–DHS secretary John Kelly said on CNN that his administration was considering separating families as a deterrent to migration. He later walked back the comments.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has long said that the administration's “zero tolerance” policy, which led to increased prosecutions of those who crossed the border without authorization, was different from a policy that would actively separate parents as a deterrent.
The zero tolerance policy led to family separations after parents were transferred into criminal custody, where children could not be placed. In a December 2017 memo laying out immigration policies, leaked by Sen. Jeff Merkley, an option to outright separate families at the border was listed after the option to increase prosecutions at the border, which was later enforced.
During a hearing in front of the House Homeland Security Committee, Nielsen reiterated this stance, stating that there was no policy of family separation but rather a policy to refer more parents for prosecution and that it was not a policy to deter more migration.
“Nielsen is continuing to try to get people to think that using the prosecutions as the tool to force separation of parents and kids, rather than just separating them, means that they weren’t just pursuing deterrence,” Shuchart said. “That the thing they didn’t do would have been a ‘policy of family separation’ and because she didn’t do that thing, but did something else, she didn’t ‘have a policy of family separation.’”
Reichlin-Melnick believes the document shows that regardless of what Nielsen said, “those in the government who had to actually figure out how to care for children taken from their parents didn’t mince any words; family separation was about deterrence. Despite the secretary’s attempts at sophistry, there’s no serious debate anymore that this administration used children as pawns against their parents. And the damage that caused to parents and children was tremendous.”
Sarah Pierce, an analyst at Migration Policy Institute, said the memo also shows that despite ORR officials examining the impact of the administration’s enforcement tactics’ on migrant housing, they still were not adequately prepared.
“This shows HHS was aware that immigration enforcement against the sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children would result in slower discharges — making it puzzling that they eventually had to scramble to rely on temporary shelters (Tornillo) to deal with that eventual growth in custody,” she said.
White has previously stated that he first heard of potential plans to separate families at the border in February 2017, when he warned against such a policy because of its impact on children. At the time of his memo, the administration had begun a pilot project in El Paso, Texas, resulting in the separation of families.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, said they would not speculate on the document but noted that “since unaccompanied alien children numbers are always unpredictable, our job is to be prepared.”
“The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families has worked aggressively to meet its responsibility to responding to ever-changing levels of referrals throughout our network of care providers,” the spokesperson said.
In a June 2018 interview on Fox News, then–attorney general Jeff Sessions was asked whether the policy that resulted in family separations was a deterrent. Sessions responded that “hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry and not break across the border unlawfully.”