If you had to pick a single thing that captured the extraordinary nexus of cruelty and lawlessness that has characterized President Trump’s tenure in office, you could do worse than choosing his family separations policy.

The country is now struggling to absorb the unthinkable fact that the president of the United States actively incited a mob to violently assault the seat of government and try to overturn an election. That came after a year in which Trump showed staggering malevolence and dereliction in the face of a pandemic ravaging the U.S. population.

In retrospect, when the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents began to stir an international outcry in the spring of 2018, we perhaps should have known it really could get this bad.

All this is crystallized by a scathing new report from the inspector general of the Justice Department on the family separations policy, a report that exposes the startling depths of depravity and contempt for good governance and basic humanity that drove its implementation.

The report found that the administration forged ahead with its “zero tolerance” policy — criminally prosecuting migrant families rather than releasing them into the interior pending asylum hearings — even though it knew this would “result in children being separated from families.”

The administration did so despite being unprepared for what it was about to undertake, the report found, and with little concern for the profoundly traumatic effect it might ultimately have on thousands of children.

Leticia and her son crossed the Rio Grande seeking asylum from danger in Guatemala. Instead, they were torn apart by a policy designed to inflict trauma. (Jeremy Raff, Connie Chavez/The Washington Post)

The report also found that the administration didn’t have adequate systems in place to keep track of the children so families could be unified. It found officials were unconcerned and sometimes ignorant of legal requirements about how those children had to be treated.

Importantly, the policy was implemented in such a haphazard, derelict fashion — and one so damaging to children — precisely in order to slake the desire of Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to crack down on immigration in the most emphatic way possible.

And this was largely rooted in considerations that appear arbitrary: The report repeatedly notes that it was Trump and Sessions’s personal concern about “caravans” of migrants coming from Central America that drove the program’s timing despite full awareness of the legal and operational difficulties it faced.

The Justice Department’s “single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact that prosecution of family unit adults and family separations would have on children,” the report concluded.

Among the other findings:

  • The report fleshes out new details about the policy impact of Trump’s and Sessions’s personal obsessions with “caravans.” At one point, officials made a special effort to ensure that people traveling with children in one caravan would be prosecuted and separated, seemingly to match talking points prepared for Sessions that said, “An illegal alien should not get a free pass just because he or she crosses the border illegally with a child.”
  • The report concluded that under Sessions, the Office of the Attorney General was so eager to separate children from parents that it ignored legal constraints for how the government is supposed to care for children in such situations, demonstrating “a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children.”
  • The government pushed ahead even though it knew it lacked adequate systems in place to keep track of the children. The report notes that at the outset, Border Patrol instructed field personnel to “use spreadsheets to track separations” because database “system changes were still pending.”
  • Notes taken on a call with Sessions and U.S. attorneys about the policy captured Sessions telling them, “We need to take away children; if care about kids, don’t bring them in.”

“This was one of the worst human rights atrocities in American history,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, told us. “The full power of the state, with the support of the president and the Cabinet, was deployed to rip thousands of kids from their parents to deter them from seeking safety and freedom as refugees in America.”

As you might recall, the family separations policy prompted many citizens to start heckling Trump administration officials in public places, such as restaurants. This prompted a big debate over what constituted appropriate public shaming of officials for carrying out policies such as those of Trump.

Whatever you think about the merits of this tactic, the report suggests that those who expressed such deep dismay with the policy got it right in terms of what it was telling us about this administration’s capacity for cruelty and abuses of state power.

When Trump campaigned in 2016 on an immigration crackdown, it was largely abstract: Surely few voters understood what it would entail in practice. But when the country began to see the gory details, it recoiled in horror, and support for immigration is now as high as it’s ever been.

Now that this report has exposed all this in a new way, it might clear more political space for incoming president Joe Biden to make the system more humane with less reflexive skittishness than Democrats traditionally show about the potential for political backlash.

“The report lays bare years of intentional cruel deterrence-based policies,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, told us. “Biden can now point to the lasting failures exposed in the report as evidence that the only way to move past the Trump administration is to restore a sense of decency towards those who seek our protection.”

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