Trump cabinet officials voted in 2018 meeting to separate migrant kids

Published by NBCNEWS.COM

Summary generated on August 20, 2020

    WASHINGTON - In early May 2018, after weeks of phone calls and private meetings, 11 of the president's most senior advisers were called to the White House Situation Room where they were asked, by a show-of-hands vote, to decide the fate of thousands of migrant parents and their children, according to two officials who were there.

    Trump's senior adviser, Stephen Miller, led the meeting and, according to the two officials, he was angry at what he saw as defiance by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

    It had been nearly a month since then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had launched the Trump administration's "Zero tolerance" policy, announcing that every immigrant who crossed the U.S. border illegally would be prosecuted, including parents with small children.

    U.S. border agents had not begun separating parents from their children to put the plan into action, and Miller, the architect of the Trump administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants, was furious about the delay.

    Those invited included Sessions, Nielsen, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and newly installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to documents obtained by NBC News.Nielsen told those at the meeting that there were simply not enough resources at DHS, nor at the other agencies that would be involved, to be able to separate parents, prosecute them for crossing the border and return them to their children in a timely manner, according to the two officials who were present.

    Without a swift process, the children would enter into the custody of Health and Human Services, which was already operating at near capacity.

    Two officials involved in the planning of zero tolerance said the Justice Department acknowledged on multiple occasions that U.S. attorneys would not be able to prosecute all parents expeditiously, so sending children to HHS was the most likely outcome.

    As Nielsen had said repeatedly to other officials in the weeks leading up to the meeting, according to two former officials, the process could get messy and children could get lost in an already clogged system.

    Miller saw the separation of families not as an unfortunate byproduct, but as a tool to deter more immigration.

    According to three former officials, he had devised plans that would have separated even more children.

    Miller, with the support of Sessions, advocated for separating all immigrant families, even those going through civil court proceedings, the former officials said.

    While "Zero tolerance" ultimately separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents, what Miller proposed would have separated an additional 25,000, including those who legally presented themselves at a port of entry seeking asylum, according to Customs and Border Protection data from May and June 2018.That plan never came to fruition, in large part because DHS officials had argued it would grind the immigration process to a halt.

    At the meeting, Miller accused anyone opposing zero tolerance of being a lawbreaker and un-American, according to the two officials present.

    "If we don't enforce this, it is the end of our country as we know it," said Miller, according to the two officials.

    No one in the meeting made the case that separating families would be inhumane or immoral, the officials said.

    Any moral argument regarding immigration "Fell on deaf ears" inside the White House, said one of the officials.

    "Miller was tired of hearing about logistical problems," said one of the officials.

    Frustrated, Miller accused Nielsen of stalling and then demanded a show of hands.

    It was clear she had been outvoted, according to the officials.

    In the days immediately following the meeting, Nielsen had a conversation with then-CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan inside her office at the Ronald Reagan Building, and then signed a memo instructing DHS personnel to prosecute all migrants crossing the border illegally, including parents arriving with their children.

    Nielsen did so despite her stated reservations in the Situation Room and being warned in a legal memo by DHS General Counsel John Mitnick - which was also sent to her then chief of staff Chad Wolf, who is now the acting secretary of DHS - that the decision would result in separation of families.

    Less than two months later, Trump signed an executive order halting family separations and a federal judge in California ordered family reunifications on the grounds the separated families' due process rights were violated.

    At the time, no plan was in place to track the children who had been separated or to create a system to reunite thousands of separated families, according to the two former officials.

    According to an invitation list obtained by NBC News, those expected to be in attendance at the meeting included: Sessions, Nielsen, Miller, Pompeo, Azar, Under Secretary of Defense John Rood, then-White House chief of staff John Kelly, White House deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell, then-White House counsel Don McGahn, and Marc Short, who was then director of legislative affairs and is now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

    Asked about the show-of-hands vote, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said, "This is absolutely not true and did not happen."

    In response to a request for a comment about the meeting and the show of hands, HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said, "This never happened."

    Before Trump ended "Zero tolerance" by executive order on June 20, 2018, over 2,800 children were separated from their parents.

    When the Trump administration was ordered by a federal judge to begin reuniting the families it had separated, it became clear there was no method for tracking both parent and child as they moved through the system.

    As a result, some took months to reunite and, in hundreds of cases, parents were deported from the U.S. without their children.

    At the time, some of the subordinates to the cabinet secretaries who were responsible for carrying out "Zero tolerance" had raised moral objections, according to a source familiar with the discussions.