DOJ Rescinds ‘Zero Tolerance’ Border Policy

Central American migrants surrender to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, March 6, 2019. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The Justice Department on Tuesday rescinded the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” enforcement policy for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, which led to thousands of family separations.

Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson sent a new memo to federal prosecutors, saying the department would return to the earlier policy of deciding whether to pursue individual cases.

“Consistent with this longstanding principle of making individualized assessments in criminal cases, I am rescinding — effective immediately — the policy directive,” Wilkinson wrote in the memo, obtained by the Associated Press.

Wilkinson said the department’s principles have “long emphasized that decisions about bringing criminal charges should involve not only a determination that a federal offense has been committed and that the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction, but should also take into account other individualized factors, including personal circumstances and criminal history, the seriousness of the offense, and the probable sentence or other consequences that would result from a conviction.” 

“While policies may change, our mission always remains the same: to seek justice under the law,” Wilkinson wrote in the memo. 

The zero tolerance policy began in April 2018 under an executive order that was issued without warning to other federal agencies that would have to manage the policy, according to the Associated Press. The policy made it so all adults who illegally entered the U.S., including those with children, were referred for prosecution.

Children who entered with those adults were separated from them and placed into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, leading to the separation of more than 5,500 children from their parents. The separations occurred with no process for reuniting the families, as some parents were deported.

The separations were later halted in June 2018 and most families have not been prosecuted under zero tolerance in the time since. Repealing the policy will affect mostly single men who have entered the country illegally.

The policy led to a $227 million funding shortfall, according to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general released earlier this month.

The report also found that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top officials were aware that children would be separated under the policy and encouraged it. Justice officials disregarded staff concerns about the rollout and did not create a system to track families to reunite them. Some 611 children are still separated, pro bono attorneys said earlier this month.

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