Jeff Sessions says it's 'very unfortunate' he split up families and put kids in cages

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The former attorney general played a key role in Donald Trump's zero tolerance policy.

Jeff Sessions, Trump's former attorney general, expressed regret on Tuesday for separating thousands of families at the U.S.-Mexico border under Donald Trump's zero tolerance policy.

In an interview with Reuters, Sessions called the policy, which he helped implement despite warnings that the government was poorly equipped to handle the fallout, "unfortunate, very unfortunate," lamenting the fact that "somehow the government was not able to manage those children in a way that they could be reunited properly."

"It turned out to be more of a problem than I think any of us imagined it would be," he added.

Sessions played an active role in enacting and enforcing the zero tolerance policy, which took effect in April 2018 and was supposedly ended in June 2018 after widespread condemnation. Under the policy, more than 5,000 families were separated, with parents prosecuted and jailed, and children as young as several months old held in "tender age" detention facilities.

The former attorney general defended prosecuting the adults on Tuesday, telling Reuters that any of them traveling with children "shouldn't be given immunity."

In January, an Inspector General report from the Department of Homeland Security found Justice officials were aware, months beforehand, that the zero tolerance program could result in scores of separated children and that the government was wholly unprepared to handle reunifications later on. Sessions pushed forward with the policy regardless.

"We found that Sessions' expectations for how the family separations process would work significantly underestimated its complexities and demonstrated a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children," the review said.

Justice officials, the report noted, "did not attempt to address [the problem] until after the policy was issued."

Emails obtained by NBC News in 2019 also confirmed that the Trump administration had no process in place to reunite families.

The New York Times reported separately that, in May 2018, according to notes from participants listening in on a conference call with several U.S. attorneys, Sessions told prosecutors, "we need to take away the children," adding, "If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids."

The zero tolerance policy was meant to act as a deterrent to immigrants, many of them fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries in Central America, though the Trump administration repeatedly denied having such a program in place.

On multiple occasions, officials suggested there was "no policy" for separating children from their parents, even as cases rose dramatically.

With a growing backlog and no way to track the minors, let alone find their families, children and teens languished in dirty detention centers, where frigid temperatures and spoiled food made many sick. Families stuck in temporary holding facilities were split up with young ones left alone behind chain link fencing.

"One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets," the Associated Press reported in June 2018, after visiting one holding facility in McAllen, Texas. "One teenager told an advocate who visited that she was helping care for a young child she didn’t know because the child’s aunt was somewhere else in the facility. She said she had to show others in her cell how to change the girl’s diaper."

Once they were transferred to detention facilities, children were particularly vulnerable to abuse. Audio of several Central American children wailing and crying out for their parents inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, obtained by ProPublica, went viral that same month, prompting widespread protest over the inhumane conditions.

Several children died in U.S. custody under the zero tolerance policy. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died from shock and dehydration on Dec. 8, 2018; Another 8-year-old Guatemalan child died on Christmas Day that year.

Officials and advocacy groups warned that the trauma children in detention face could potentially be permanent.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) told the American Independent Foundation in September 2019, "This is government-run child abuse, and the damage can be long-lasting."

"I have seen these facilities and, as a psychologist, I know the harm they can cause children in particular," she added.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, is one of the many attorneys and activists working to reunite the families.

He told the American Independent in an email in January, "The Trump administration's family separation practice will go down as one of the most inhumane immigration practices in this country's history."

As of March 2021, more than 500 children are still separated from their families. Immigration groups including the ACLU are working with the Biden administration to locate and reunite them, and President Joe Biden has created a task force solely dedicated to the reunifications.

With additional reporting by Melanie Schmitz.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.