Watchdog Sues Trump Administration for Records of Family Separation Policy

Washington, DC, Dec. 5, 2018 – Nonpartisan ethics watchdog American Oversight yesterday filed multiple lawsuits to shed light on the development and implementation of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The suits target four federal agencies and their components and seek a wide range of records including budget documents, communications with congressional leaders, and information about detention facilities.

“The administration’s attempts to shift the blame and obscure the details of its barbaric family separation policy won’t stop the truth from coming out,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “As thousands of immigrant families have been traumatized by the administration’s cruelty and incompetence, the public has been left with few answers about the policy that has been carried out in our name. The family separation policy was implemented by a sprawling federal bureaucracy, which means there’s going to be a paper trail every step of the way – and we intend to expose the facts for the American people to see.”

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The incoming Congress is also expected to investigate the family separation policy. Yesterday’s lawsuits are part of American Oversight’s ongoing effort to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and litigation to ensure that the Trump administration can’t obstruct the investigations or block transparency.

In April 2018, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would enact a “zero tolerance” criminal prosecution policy against all adults who crossed the border illegally—effectively separating parents, who were taken into custody in the criminal court system, from their children. The administration officially implemented the policy in May. By the time public opposition prompted President Trump in June to sign an executive order that he depicted as ending the family separation policy, over 2,300 children had been separated from their parents at the border.

While DOJ ordered the “zero tolerance” policy, the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) were largely responsible for implementing family separations. DHS detained children once they arrived at the border, sometimes for far longer than allowed by law. Minors were then transferred to HHS custody, and were often held in “tent cities” overseen by HHS. At least one tent city remains operational.

Though the president’s June 2018 executive order nominally ended the family separation policy, news reports indicate that children are still being separated from their parents. The future of the “zero tolerance” policy is unclear, as the administration faces legal challenges over its attempt to detain families together. The president’s executive order instructed DHS to house children in “existing facilities” along with their parents—even though the indefinite detention of minors would violate a federal agreement that governs detention standards for underage immigrants.

American Oversight’s lawsuits target documents from four agencies and their components about the implementation and aftermath of the family separation policy, including:

  • DOJ, DHS, HHS, and Office of Management and Budget records showing the full costs of the family separation policy, and identifying programs from which funds were diverted to pay for housing children and reuniting separated families;
  • Communications between federal agencies—including HHS, DOJ, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement—and members of Congress or congressional staff related to funding for the family separation policy;
  • Records from HHS related to DNA testing to reunite parents and children, including guidance on obtaining consent for DNA testing from migrant children and agreements to share DNA outside of HHS;
  • Administration for Children and Families records regarding detention facility conditions, including complaints of physical or emotional abuse; and
  • Emails between certain DOJ officials, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, and anti-immigrant groups and individuals, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and Kris Kobach.

Click here to view the full complaints.

American Oversight is a non-partisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog and is the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration. American Oversight has filed more than 50 public records lawsuits since March 2017, uncovering and publishing tens of thousands of documents including senior officials’ calendars, emails, and expense records. Through its Parallel Investigations Initiative, American Oversight uses targeted FOIA requests and litigation to prevent the Trump administration from obstructing congressional oversight. Follow us at @weareoversight and learn more at http://www.americanoversight.org.