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For the first time, a senior Trump administration official who helped implement family separation has condemned the hardline immigration policy which made it possible for the government to take more than 3,000 children, including infants, from their parents at the US-Mexico border in 2018.

A group of Central American migrants climb the border fence between Mexico and the United States, near El Chaparral border crossing, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

In response to a damning report published today by the US Justice department’s internal watchdog on the “zero tolerance” policy which made family separation possible, former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said the policy “should have never been proposed or implemented.”

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) long-awaited report said department leadership knew the zero tolerance policy would result in children being separated from their families and that the former US attorney general Jeff Sessions “demonstrated a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children.”

“We concluded that the Department’s single-minded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations,” the report said.

The OIG said Justice department leadership “did not effectively coordinate” with the relevant agencies before implementing zero tolerance, despite being aware of the challenges created by increasing prosecutions of adult asylum-seekers under “zero tolerance.”

In a conference call in May 2018, Sessions told prosecutors “We need to take away children,” according to notes taken by people on the call and provided to the OIG.

Rosenstein, who publicly denounced the policy for the first time today, told the OIG he knew the zero tolerance policy would result in family separations.

In July 2020, the Guardian reported that Rosenstein had made comments in a conference call with US attorneys charged with implementing the policy that in effect meant that no child was too young to be separated from their parents.

In a statement provide to the Guardian on Thursday Rosenstein said he and his colleagues at the Justice department “faced unprecedented challenges” compared to work he had done as a US attorney under previous presidential administrations.

“Since leaving the Department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero tolerance immigration policy,” Rosenstein said. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”

We’ll have the rest of this story on the website very soon.

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