A judge has ordered former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to testify in a lawsuit filed by families separated at the southern border, The Washington Post reports. The two former Trump officials were instrumental in the planning and implementation of the barbaric and inhumane “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in the forcible separation of thousands of migrant children. Hundreds remain separated to this very day.
“Lawyers said the depositions would mark the first time the former officials have been ordered to testify in one of dozens of lawsuits filed against the federal government seeking millions of dollars in damages for allegedly intentionally inflicting emotional distress on migrant families,” the report said.
While former White House aide and noted white nationalist Stephen Miller was the architect of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda and similarly deserves to be held accountable, ultimately it was Nielsen and Sessions who held the authority to greenlight state-sanctioned child kidnapping as a matter of U.S. policy. Sessions (who brought Miller into the U.S. Senate as an aide) could not have been more eager to carry out separations. Remember, he could barely contain his glee when he announced the rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017.
“‘We need to take away children,’ Mr. Sessions told the prosecutors, according to participants’ notes,” The New York Times reported on a May 2018 meeting of Justice Department officials. “One added in shorthand: ‘If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.’” But when separations began and the Trump administration was met with universal condemnation, Sessions publicly lied about the policy, falsely claiming that the administration “never really intended” to rip children from parents. Uh huh.
But Sessions wasn’t the only shameless liar in the bunch. Nielsen would repeatedly claim that there was no family separation policy, including during testimony to members of Congress. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she tweeted at the height of the separation crisis in June 2018. “Period.” But there was a policy, and it bore her signature.
Nielsen “signed a secretarial decision memo on May 5, 2018, in which she was asked to choose one of three options for slowing or stopping migration into the U.S. Of the three — which included options to gradually scale up prosecutions, to refer all single adults for prosecution, and to refer all adults including those arriving with children — Nielsen selected the third,” NBC News reported in 2020. “The option Nielsen signed on the memo clearly stated the result would make it ‘legally permissible to separate minors from adult family members.’”
The litigation was launched by three parents who were ripped from children as young as six after fleeing Central America, legal advocates said. While a financial settlement would be some justice long denied to families, it doesn’t erase the trauma that even Trump officials knew would be inflicted on children under the policy. Physicians for Human Rights would later find that the policy constituted “torture” and was a form of “enforced disappearance.” Detained parents –- including from the lawsuit – would spend lengthy periods of time having no idea where their children were.
“Wilbur, Joshua, and Erendira spent weeks detained in facilities unable to speak with their children or receive any information about them,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area said in 2021.
Court documents reveal that when Wilbur and other detained dads pleaded for information on the whereabouts of their children, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers “insulted them and threatened to punish them for making eye contact. When officers entered the cell, they often asked Wilbur and the men detained with him why they were trying to invade the United States,” echoing the kind of white nationalist rhetoric also spewed by racist mass killers and echoed by anti-immigrant lawmakers and campaigns.
“These officials set in motion a cruel program of ripping apart migrant families. It is only right that they provide testimony under oath in this case,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Victoria Petty said in the Post. “Thousands of parents and children will endure the lasting harm of this barbaric treatment for the rest of their lives.” Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service President Krish O’Mara Vignarajah noted “this will be the first time officials responsible for this shameful policy might face some degree of accountability.”
In a must-read column in the Post, Catherine Rampell wrote that the “moral stain” from this inhumane policy remains, and warned that the lack of accountability invites further cruelty from anti-immigrant candidates seeking the presidency in 2024.
“Worse, we might be sleepwalking into bigger atrocities in the years ahead, as Donald Trumpand other Republican politicians threaten even more extralegal punishment of immigrants if handed back the White House,” Rampell wrote. “Meanwhile, other Republicans vying for the presidential nomination have aped Trump’s instincts. At the recent debates, candidates referred to our country as being ‘invaded’ by immigrants, endorsed ‘militarizing’ our border, and promised ‘lethal force’ against those attempting to cross it.” Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, said we “need solutions through the actual hard work of governance, not more fear mongering, obstruction and political demagoguery.”