Trump officials complained about separated migrant families being reunited too quickly, emails show

In the spring of 2018, top U.S. immigration officials under the Trump administration complained that migrant families split up along the southern border were being reunited too quickly, emails released to a federal court this week show.

On May 10, 2018, Matthew Albence, then a top Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) official who is now in the private sector, wrote an email raising a concern about the implementation of the “zero-tolerance” policy, which required Border Patrol agents to separate migrant parents from their children for the purpose of prosecuting them for unlawful entry and designating their children as unaccompanied minors, who must be housed by the U.S. refugee agency.

Albence said he was concerned that migrant parents separated from their children in Arizona would quickly be returned to Border Patrol custody after pleading guilty to crossing the border without legal permission — a misdemeanor offense — because the local district court generally sentenced them to time served.

“This will result in a situation in which the parents are back in the exact same facility as their children — possibly in a matter of hours — who have yet to be placed into ORR custody,” Albence wrote, referring to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

To prevent these quick family reunifications, Albence proposed in his email to ICE’s then-acting director Tom Homan that U.S. border agents should transfer separated migrant children to the refugee agency “at an accelerated pace” and send the parents to adult-only ICE detention centers following their prosecution. 

On May 25, 2018, Albence received a Friday night email confirming his concern. Tae Johnson, another top ICE official, said border agents in south Texas were reuniting migrant parents with their children after their prosecutions were completed, since the minors were still awaiting placement in a refugee agency shelter. 

Those placements were canceled, Johnson said in his email, noting that he assumed migrant fathers were being released with their children after the reunifications. “What a fiasco,” wrote Johnson, who is now the interim director of ICE, a position he assumed during the last week of the Trump administration.

Los Angeles Times
Guatemalan asylum seeker Hermelindo Che Coc embraces his 6-year-old son, Jefferson Che Pop, after reuniting with him in Los Angeles on July 14, 2018.

Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“We can’t have this,” Albence told other ICE officials in response to Johnson’s email, which he forwarded to then Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, top CBP official Ronald Vitiello and Homan the following day at 2:01 a.m. He told them that U.S. refugee agency officials were refusing to assume custody of children who had already reunited with their parents in Border Patrol facilities.

“This obviously undermines the entire effort and the Dept is going to look completely ridiculous if we go through the effort of prosecuting only to send them to a [Family Residential Center] and out the door,” Albence wrote on May 26.

Referencing the concerns raised by ICE, Sandi Goldhamer, then a CBP official, suggested that Border Patrol “cease the reunification process” if officials are “concerned about appearances,” the emails show. 

The batch of internal emails, submitted to the federal district court in Arizona on Tuesday by attorneys representing families seeking compensation over the border separations, is the latest revelation to undermine the Trump administration’s public statements about its “zero-tolerance” practice. The Washington Post reported on the emails earlier Wednesday.

On multiple occasions, high-ranking members of the Trump administration denied developing a family separation policy, saying the effort was designed to impose consequences on migrant adults traveling with their children by way of criminal prosecution. Officials said the policy would deter migrants from traveling to the U.S.

But the emails show that family separation was an integral and deliberate part of the “zero tolerance” policy, so much so that top Trump administration officials opposed the quick reunification of children with parents who had already been criminally prosecuted.

In one of the May 2018 emails, one ICE official, David Jennings, said the quick reunifications in border custody meant there would be “no consequences at this point.”

Representatives for CBP, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), their parent agency, did not respond to requests to comment on the newly released emails, nor say whether the Biden administration is investigating them.

The Justice Department, which has been seeking to dismiss lawsuits filed by migrant families requesting monetary compensation over the trauma caused by the Trump-era separations, declined to comment on the emails.

The lawyers who submitted the internal emails to the federal district court in Arizona said migrant fathers they represent were separated from their children despite not being prosecuted or even referred for prosecution in the first place. 

Immigration-Family Separation
Fernando Arredondo, right, of Guatemala, reunites with his wife Cleivi, left, at Los Angeles International Airport after being separated during the Trump administration’s wide-scale separation of immigrant families, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

The emails, the lawyers argued in their court filing Tuesday, demonstrate that the primary goal of Trump administration officials was to split up families, not to prosecute parents. They also bolster families’ arguments that they are entitled to compensation over the separations, the attorneys added.

“Thus, in practice, the government implemented a sweeping administrative family separation policy — the exact DHS proposal discussed throughout 2017 — under the guise of a prosecution policy, which was merely a pretext for the ultimate goal: separating families to deter immigration,” the lawyers wrote.

U.S. border officials separated roughly 4,000 migrant children from their parents until public uproar forced former President Donald Trump to abandon the mass separations in June 2018. Hundreds of migrant families were subsequently reunited under a federal court order. But many parents were deported without their children.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden called the border separations “criminal,” and soon after he took office in January 2021, his administration set up a task force to locate and reunite families affected by the policy who remained separated.

More than 300 migrant children have been reunited with their parents in the U.S. under the task force, according to DHS, which estimates that another 1,000 children remain separated from their families. 

The emails released this week also show that DHS officials proposed to separate migrant families during Mr. Trump’s first month in office. In a Feb. 16, 2017, email, an HHS official said the plan was designed to “deter illegal cross-border entries,” without mentioning criminal prosecutions.

In a separate internal email from March 2017 released this week, HHS officials said the “separation of children from their families could be considered a human rights abuse.”

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