The Atlantic is publishing a collection of key internal government documents related to the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, known as Zero Tolerance. The records informed the reporting of my cover story on how it came to be and who was responsible. Our hope is to introduce greater transparency around a policy that gravely harmed thousands of families and whose development and intent were concealed from the public for years. During the Trump administration, more than 5,000 migrant children were taken from their parents as part of a dubious and ineffectual strategy to deter migration across the southern border. Hundreds remain separated today.

These records showcase, among other things, government officials’ attempts to mislead the public; inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent record keeping, which to this day means that a full accounting of separations does not exist; efforts to extend the length of time that children and parents were kept apart; and early and repeated internal warnings about the policy’s worst outcomes, which were ignored.

As you will see, some of the records are marked “pre-decisional,” “deliberative,” or “attorney-client privileged” in an attempt to exempt them from federal disclosure requirements and ensure they would never become public. The Atlantic obtained them only through extensive litigation.

The Atlantic’s records, combined with others secured by the House Judiciary Committee, the progressive nonprofit group American Oversight, and separated families themselves, have been organized and tagged for future use. The collection is far from complete, and many of the documents still contain redactions. However, we hope that this database will prove a useful tool for those engaged in research and documentation of family separations, and that the body of publicly available information will continue to grow.

In the spring of 2017, Jeff Self, the Border Patrol chief in the El Paso Sector, which includes New Mexico and parts of Texas, quietly launched a regional program to start referring migrant parents traveling with children for prosecution, which would require those families to be separated. This strained resources throughout the immigration system, including at the Department of Health and Human Services, which took custody of the children. Federal officials would later call the program a “pilot” and use it as a model for expanding the practice nationwide. Some early separations also occurred in Yuma, Arizona, under a separate initiative.

Family Separation Directive for Texas Border Patrol stations in the El Paso Sector*

Family Separation Directive for New Mexico Border Patrol stations in the El Paso Sector*

Department of Health and Human Services official: “They are discovering more separations that were not reported.”

HHS officials contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeking help locating the parents of detained separated children.

HHS official reports that the Department of Homeland Security “is working on a family separation policy again.”

El Paso Sector “After Action Report” summarizing the results of separations that occurred there in 2017

Jonathan White, head of the HHS program housing children, reports, “We had a shortage last night of beds for babies.”

HHS officials report, “We suspect that there are other [unaccompanied children] being separated from parents.”

Border Patrol official Gloria Chavez tells the acting agency chief Carla Provost that the El Paso Sector has been separating families for more than four months. Provost calls for separations to stop.

Provost: “This has been ongoing since July without our knowledge … It has not blown up in the media as of yet but of course has the potential to.”

Border Patrol official Scott Luck asks colleagues Chavez and Hull, “Why are we just hearing about it?”

A DHS official requests a Border Patrol report on initial separations in El Paso to present to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

The acting deputy chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector tells Chavez, inaccurately, that family separations there lasted only two to seven days, and suggests, despite evidence to the contrary, that many people presenting themselves as families at the border were in fact unrelated.

At a February 14, 2017, interagency meeting, immigration-enforcement officials presented a nationwide plan to separate families as an immigration deterrent. Afterward, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services—the agency that would be charged with caring for separated children—pushed back against the plan while scrambling to prepare. The plan was also leaked to the media, after which Homeland Security officials began to assert publicly that the idea had been abandoned. In reality, during and after regional separation programs were implemented in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, the nationwide plan was still being pushed aggressively by leaders of the immigrant-enforcement agencies, as well as by Stephen Miller, President Donald Trump’s chief immigration adviser, and Gene Hamilton, a confidant of Miller’s who worked at DHS and the Department of Justice.

Invitation to the February 14, 2017, meeting

HHS official Jonathan White’s internal summary of proposals discussed at the February meeting

HHS official: “DHS stressed” in a meeting that the “overall intent of the actions is to serve as a deterrent.”

White asks enforcement officials for more information about plans to separate families.

List of attempts by White to inquire and raise red flags about plans to separate families

HHS March 2017 report: Children who would be separated “tend to skew heavily toward tender aged”; separations “could be considered a human rights abuse,” cause “a myriad of international legal issues,” and “increase the risk of human trafficking.”

In an internal memo, federal officials describe family separation as a “short term” solution to be implemented in the “next 30 days.”**

December 2017 correspondence between DHS officials: “Announce that DHS will begin separating family units.”

December 2017 DHS policy proposal: “Parental Choice of Detention or Separation”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan plans to formally recommend family separation: “I do believe that this approach would have the greatest impact.”

Zero Tolerance memo signed by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s follow-up Zero Tolerance memo with additional instructions

El Paso Sector initial implementation guidance

El Centro Sector implementation guidance

Del Rio Sector implementation guidance

Scott Lloyd of Health and Human Services asks McAleenan and Acting ICE Director Tom Homan for a meeting to discuss the implications of Zero Tolerance.

Border Patrol officials warn of “repercussions” for prosecutors who declined to participate in separations.

The Justice Department’s Gene Hamilton touts a dramatic increase in prosecutions under Zero Tolerance.

“A lot of parent separation cases” are “missing information,” an HHS official reports.

HHS officials note inconsistent documentation and tracking issues.

An HHS official reports, “There are a bunch of tender age girls” stuck in Border Patrol stations; “this is caused by the policy decision to separate kids from their families as a deterrent.”

A magistrate judge in Tucson, Arizona, inquires about separation and reunification processes.

After a Brownsville, Texas, magistrate demands a list of separated families and their locations, a Border Patrol agent jokes, “I might be spending some time in the slammer.”

Yuma Border Patrol Sector reports: Resources are strained by “meal preparation, and feeding” detained families.

Amended Big Bend Sector guidance

Orders to halt separations following President Trump’s executive order reversing course on Zero Tolerance in response to public outcry

A Customs and Border Protection official notes failures to properly document separations of 0-to-4-year-old children.

Though a full accounting of the family separations that took place during the Trump administration does not exist, these internal government charts offer some insight into the nature of those that were recorded. For example, Homeland Security officials have often suggested that some of the individuals separated under Zero Tolerance were actually “false families,” or that separated parents were guilty of more serious crimes beyond the misdemeanor of illegally crossing the border, to justify taking their children away. But the first chart in this list makes clear that 2,146 of 2,256 separated parents who were referred for prosecution between May 5 and June 20, 2018, were charged only with the misdemeanor. During the same period, 137 parents were charged with the felony of having crossed the border illegally more than once, while only two were presented with “other charges.” The second chart notes that over those weeks, at least 251 children younger than 6 were separated from their parents, along with 1,370 children ages 6 to 12, and 1,272 ages 13 to 17.

Zero Tolerance Separation datasets May 5-June 20, 2018

Internal Border Patrol “Prosecution Initiative Update” charts from July 1 to July 7, 2018

Undated list of reasons for some separations

Below is a small sampling of instances when government officials, members of congress, reporters and community groups sought information about a noticeable rise in family separations. Despite these inquiries, for more than a year, Department of Homeland Security officials denied that the agency’s treatment of families had changed, suggesting that business was proceeding as usual and that families were not being separated any more than in the past.

“The El Paso Federal Defender’s Office has registered an increase in the separation of children and parents,” an immigrant advocacy group wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials ahead of an August 2017 meeting. “What is the current policy on family separation?”

Border Patrol officials scramble to respond after a meeting with Representative Beto O’Rourke’s office, in which family separations were inadvertently disclosed.

Months into the El Paso Sector separation initiative, Border Patrol official Aaron Hull tells the ICE official Phil Miller, “We don’t like to separate families.”

Jonathan White of the Department of Health and Human Services asks Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan and Acting ICE Director Tom Homan why his agency is receiving larger numbers of separated children than in the past. Homan does not respond. McAleenan does not disclose that separations have been underway to White.

A communications official at DHS seeks guidance on how to respond to inquiries from the media and immigrant advocacy groups.

DHS official to reporters: “We ask that members of the public and media view advocacy group claims that we are separating women and children for reasons other than to protect the child with the level of skepticism they deserve.”

In response to another inquiry, HHS officials decline to respond, and then confirm that more than 700 children have in fact been separated.

In internal emails, DHS officials push back against the story about 700 separated children, claiming inaccurately that “the actual number is much lower.”

Quarterly meeting agenda: “There are reports of family separation cases at the border.”

A report on an investigation into complaints of family separations cites “inconsistency,” “inadequate protocols,” and “lack of collaboration.” It recommends the creation of an interagency working group, a “Family-Member Locator System,” and other tools to prevent prolonged separations and to ensure that families are eventually reunified.

A summary of an investigation into 950 complaints about family separations anticipates “permanent family separation” and “new populations of US orphans.”

CRCL staff seeks information about the “enormous volume of matters alleging inappropriate family separations.”

Cameron Quinn, the head of CRCL, emails Customs and Border Protection Commissioner McAleenan to raise concerns about reports of family separations.

Quinn tells McAleenan that CRCL has received “over 100 recent allegations of separations.”

CRCL staff notes the Border Patrol’s failure to document some separations.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official named Matt Albence insists that the “expectation is that we are NOT to reunite the families” and proposes ways to avoid such reunifications, such as moving children away from the border faster.

“We can’t have this,” Albence writes about reunifications.

Albence and other ICE and Border Patrol officials lament that some families have been reunified, calling it “a fiasco” and “not the consequence we had in mind,” which “obviously undermines the entire effort.”

Reunifications, Albence insists, are not “going to happen unless we are directed by the Dept to do so.”

Reports that reunification forms were given to parents in languages they did not understand

Correspondence on harried reunification efforts

An employee at a company contracted to care for separated children tells colleagues, “ICE will be stopping all reunifications … due to limited bed space.”

In the federal lawsuit Ms. L. v. ICE, lawyers representing the federal government turned over the most complete list of family separations that exists. The ACLU shared that database with The Atlantic after redacting details such as names and dates of birth, which could be used to identify individual parents or children who were affected by the separation policy.

Here, documents are organized into collections based on key criteria, such as year, location, federal agency, and the key players involved.

  • Full collection

  • 2017, the first year in which separations took place

  • 2018, the second year in which separations took place

  • Department of Justice, which prosecuted some separated parents

  • Department of Health and Human Services, which took custody of most separated children

  • Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration-enforcement agencies Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose officers separated some families at ports of entry

  • Border Patrol, whose agents separated most of the families affected by the Trump administration’s family-separation policy

  • ICE, whose leadership advocated for separating families and sought to prolong separations

  • The White House, where a group of hawks, led by Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s senior immigration adviser, pushed for aggressive enforcement tactics, including separating families

  • Matt Albence, Head of enforcement and removal operations, the division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that carries out deportations

  • Gloria Chavez, a long-serving Border Patrol official who had early knowledge of separations that occurred in the El Paso Sector

  • Gene Hamilton, Served as senior counsel at DHS under President Donald Trump. When Nielsen took over as DHS secretary, Hamilton left to work on immigration enforcement with his former boss Jeff Sessions, who was then Trump’s attorney general.

  • Jonathan Hoffman, A close adviser and assistant secretary for public affairs to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

  • Tom Homan, The intellectual “father” of the idea to separate migrant families as a deterrent, who went on to serve as acting ICE director through the end of Zero Tolerance

  • Bob Kadlec, HHS assistant secretary of preparedness and response, who led the agency’s family-reunification task force

  • John Kelly, Considered but ultimately rejected the idea to separate migrant families as a deterrent while serving as Trump’s first DHS secretary. Kelly went on to serve as Trump’s chief of staff during Zero Tolerance.

  • Scott Lloyd, Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS division that houses detained “unaccompanied children.” For months, Lloyd declined to look into reports of family separations, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that they were occurring.

  • Kevin McAleenan, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. In May 2018, McAleenan recommended that the Border Patrol start referring migrant parents for prosecution and separating them from their children.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen, After serving as chief of staff to John Kelly at DHS, Nielsen became DHS secretary and the face of family separations

  • Carla Provost, Acting Border Patrol chief during Zero Tolerance

  • Ron Vitiello, Acting Director Customs and Border Protection, who was second in command to Kevin McAleenan during Zero Tolerance and the preceding pilots

  • Katie Waldman, DHS deputy press secretary, who went on to marry Stephen Miller

  • Jonathan White, Served as head of the HHS program that houses detained migrant children. White opposed and tried to prevent family separations, and later helped lead HHS efforts to reunify families.

  • Chad Wolf, Chief of staff to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke and Secretary Nielsen. Under Duke, Wolf pressed the DHS policy office to support proposals to separate families.

  • Locations: Big Bend, Brownsville, Calexico, California, Canutillo, Del Rio, El Centro, El Paso, Harlingen, Hidalgo, Houston, Laredo, New Mexico, New York, Nogales, Phoenix, Port Isabel, Rio Grande Valley, San Diego, San Luis, San Ysidro, Texas, Tucson, Yuma

Congressional Reports

House Oversight Committee: Child Separations by the Trump Administration

House Judiciary Committee: The Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy: Trauma, Destruction, and Chaos

Inspector General Reports

Department of Justice

Review of the Department of Justice’s Planning and Implementation of Its Zero Tolerance Policy and Its Coordination With the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services

Department of Health and Human Services

Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care

Communication and Management Challenges Impeded HHS’s Response to the Zero-Tolerance Policy

Characteristics of Separated Children in ORR’s Care: June 27, 2018–November 15, 2020

Department of Homeland Security and Components

DHS Lacked Technology Needed to Successfully Account for Separated Migrant Families

CBP Separated More Asylum-Seeking Families at Ports of Entry Than Reported and for Reasons Other Than Those Outlined in Public Statements

Children Waited for Extended Periods in Vehicles to Be Reunified With Their Parents at ICE’s Port Isabel Detention Center in July 2018

ICE Did Not Consistently Provide Separated Migrant Parents the Opportunity to Bring Their Children Upon Removal

*The government supplied numerous copies of this directive with various portions redacted. The least redacted version has been excerpted here from the Border Patrol’s “After Action Report,” which summarized the results of the separations that occurred in the El Paso Sector in 2017.

**This memo was originally obtained by the office of Senator Jeff Merkley.

Note: The government occasionally supplied The Atlantic with multiple versions of the same email chain or report, and redacted different portions of each. Such documents have been combined in order to show all unredacted material.


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