How many indeed?
Rosenstein’s complicity in this machine was ugly, but it was by no means unique. Top officials at the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services all played a role. They were all sowing chaos, inflicting cruelty and causing unfathomable trauma at the behest of a small, vicious cadre up top.
Gelernt told me that he had to make a hard strategic decision when arguing his case against the Trump Justice Department. In order to get families reunited quickly, he was not going to challenge the administration’s right to prosecute these immigrants. He accepted that they broke the law. And like any American parent who breaks the law, he accepted that they typically had to be separated from their children while in jail.
Instead, his argument was this: The jail time for these misdemeanors was usually a matter of days. So why were these parents not being reunited with their children afterward? “What became clear,” he told me, “is that they never had any intention of reuniting them until the parent gave up and was deported, if ever.”
The federal judge in San Diego agreed, saying the government’s behavior “shocks the conscience,” that the separation policy violated due process and that all separated families had to be reunited within 30 days.
But what galls Gelernt now, after seeing the Times report about the inspector general’s investigation, is that his suspicions were right all along: Separating families was the objective of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, not a byproduct. The children were the targets of the policy, not collateral damage. “We need to take away children,” Sessions reportedly told the local U.S. attorneys.
No president before Trump had ever dared go that far. Which is not to say that Trump’s predecessors handled immigration gingerly: When the number of immigrants surged at the border in 2014, President Barack Obama responded by building more detention facilities and holding families indefinitely — though still together — and faced a legal backlash.
But Trump’s policy was something altogether different. It was child abuse, plain and simple. “That’s why it’s so chilling,” Gelernt told me. “D.O.J. officials apparently declined to exempt even cases with a baby.”