Inspector General report on the Zero Tolerance Policy

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DOJ-OIG Report (2020-01-14)

Review of the Department of Justice’s Planning and Implementation of Its Zero Tolerance Policy and Its Coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services is a report by the United States Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General which was released on December 9, 2020 by Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.[1] The report reviewed the Trump administration's family separation policy, and in particular the "zero-tolerance" policy that was espoused by then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and how DOJ planned, implemented, and coordinated the policy with DHS and DHHS.


On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors "to adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy for all offenses" related to the misdemeanor of improper entry into the United States, and that this "zero-tolerance policy shall supersede any existing policies". This would criminally convict first-time offenders whereas historically they had faced civil and administrative removal, while criminal convictions were usually reserved for those who committed the felony of illegal re-entry after removal.[2][3]

The policy was notably unpopular, more so than any other major bill or executive action in recent memory.[4] Poll aggregates show that approximately 25 percent of Americans supported the policy, although a majority of Republicans supported it.[4][5] Following the May announcement, dozens of protest demonstrations were held, attracting thousands. In Washington, D.C., Democratic members of Congress marched in protest.[6] The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the Trump administration to "immediately halt" its policy of separating children from their parents,[7][8] and human rights activists have criticized that the policy, insofar as it is also applied to asylum seekers, defies Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.[9]

Despite previously asserting that "You can't [reverse the policy] through an executive order",[10] on June 20, 2018, Trump bowed to intense political pressure and signed an executive order to reverse the policy[11] while still maintaining "zero tolerance" border control by detaining entire families together.[12][13][14] Asked by a reporter why he had taken so long to sign the order, Trump asserted, "It's been going on for 60 years. Sixty years. Nobody has taken care of it. Nobody has had the political courage to take care of it. But we're going to take care of it."[15][16] The Trump administration said that they would use the governments "central database" to reconnect the thousands of families that had been separated. However, with the release of emails obtained by NBC News in 2019 it was discovered that there was no central database and the government had only enough information to reconnect 60 children with their parents.[17]


The report found that "the department did not effectively plan for or coordinate with the U.S. Attorney's offices, the U.S. Marshals Service, DHS, or DHHS, about the impact that family unit adult prosecutions under the zero tolerance policy would have on children, despite senior leaders' awareness that it would result in the separation of children."[18]

The DOJ also didn't plan for the operational, resource, and management impacts that a "substantial increase in immigration prosecutions resulting from the zero tolerance policy" would have on the USMS, the USAOs, and the Federal Courts.[18]


The findings led Rod Rosenstein, who had been Trump's Attorney General at the time the policy was enforced, to admit that family separations "should never have been implemented".[19] According to an NBC News report on the investigation, "The report could provide a road map for the incoming Biden administration to investigate those responsible for a policy President-elect Joe Biden has called criminal."[20]


  1. ^ Rodriguez, Sabrina. "Jeff Sessions' DOJ was 'driving force' behind family separation policy, IG report finds". POLITICO. Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  2. ^ Farivar, Masood. "Sessions Announces 'Zero-Tolerance' Policy on Illegal Border Crossings". Voice of America. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  3. ^ "Did President Trump Order Detained Immigrants to Wear Yellow Bracelets?". Snopes. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Sides, John (June 19, 2018). "The extraordinary unpopularity of Trump's family separation policy (in one graph)". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  5. ^ "Polls: Trump's family separation policy is very unpopular—except among Republicans". Vox. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  6. ^ Arango, Tim; Cockrel, Kayla (June 14, 2018). "Marches Across the U.S. Protest Separation of Migrant Families". The New York Times. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  7. ^ "Taking Migrant Children From Parents Is Illegal, U.N. Tells U.S." Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  8. ^ "UN office calls on US to stop separating families at border". The Washington Post. Associated Press. June 5, 2018. Archived from the original on June 14, 2018. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  9. ^ Vine, Katy (June 15, 2018). "What's Really Happening When Asylum-Seeking Families Are Separated?". Texas Monthly. Retrieved June 17, 2018.
  10. ^ "Trump signs executive order he says will keep immigrant families together". ABC News. June 20, 2018. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  11. ^ "Trump Retreats on Separating Families, Signing Order to Detain Them Together". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  12. ^ "Trump Ends Family Separations by Detaining Whole Families Indefinitely". Truthout. Retrieved June 20, 2018.
  13. ^ Wagner M, Rocha V, Ries B, Wills A (June 22, 2018). "What's Happening at the US Border?". CNN. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  14. ^ "Unaccompanied Children: Agency Efforts to Identify and Reunify Children Separated from Parents at the Border" (PDF). Retrieved February 8, 2019.
  15. ^ "Trump signs executive order to end family separations". CNN. June 20, 2018. Retrieved June 22, 2018 – via YouTube.
  16. ^ "Remarks by President Trump and Vice President Pence at Signing of Executive Order Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation". Retrieved June 22, 2018 – via National Archives.
  17. ^ Soboroff, Jacob. "Emails show Trump admin had 'no way to link' separated migrant children to parents". NBC News. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  18. ^ a b "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 | U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General". Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  19. ^ Holpuch, Amanda; Kirchgaessner, Stephanie (2021-01-14). "Trump official admits family separation policy 'should never have been implemented'". the Guardian. Retrieved 2021-01-15. Rod Rosenstein publicly denounces 'zero-tolerance' policy for first time, following report showing US didn't effectively coordinate care for children
  20. ^ "Justice officials respond to report on family separation by blaming Trump, expressing regret". NBC News. Retrieved January 15, 2021.