Judge orders top Trump administration officials answer for family separation policy

Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen had "unique personal knowledge of their own intent" in migrant family seperation

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published September 27, 2023 1:52PM (EDT)

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Two Trump-era administration officials have been mandated to testify as part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government for separating migrant children under the age of 18 from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Federal magistrate judge Kandis Westmore of California on Monday issued a decision telling the Justice Department and attorneys for the affected families to meet in order to slot depositions for former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. 

The suit, filed in 2021 by three families from El Salvador and Guatemala, alleges that the parents were separated from their children — then ages 6, 11, and 13 — and spent several weeks in detention centers before being reunited. 

Westmore in her ruling wrote that Sessions and Nielsen had "unique personal knowledge of their own intent" in enforcing such a stringent policy, adding that while the Department of Justice initially touted the zero-tolerance rule as fomented by "dozens of people," the government ultimately conceded that the duo alone had been responsible for structuring the policy as such, a fact which the judge said left her "disappointed." Records show that Sessions and Nielsen approved the documents that catalyzed the separations, according to the Washington Post.

"Such an injustice cannot stand," Westmore wrote.

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MAGA officials claimed that they instituted the separation policy as a means of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally; however, Trump's administration neglected to organize a process for reuniting families that were broken up and instead deported hundreds of parents while leaving the children behind. The Washington Post noted that lawyers for the migrant families have indicated that many parents were never criminally prosecuted, including some of the parents in the lawsuit. 

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement, "We remain committed to achieving a just resolution for the victims of this abhorrent policy." Court records show that the agency disagreed with deposing Sessions and Nielsen on the grounds of the apex deposition doctrine, which serves to protect high-ranking officials from having to testify. 

"We've got to follow the rules one way or the other," Sessions said in a statement, declining to offer further comment. 

"These officials set in motion a cruel program of ripping apart migrant families. It is only right that they provide testimony under oath in this case," argued Victoria Petty, staff attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. "Thousands of parents and children will endure the lasting harm of this barbaric treatment for the rest of their lives."

"We hope this order brings us one step closer to holding the United States government accountable for its officials' misconduct that deeply traumatized asylum-seeking families," she added.

Though President Joe Biden has routinely criticized border separations in the past, the Department of Justice continues to defend Trump-implemented immigration policies.  

"President Biden has described family separation as a 'human tragedy,' but his administration is fighting separated families tooth and nail in federal court," said Bree Bernwanger of the American Civil Liberties Union.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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