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The Trump administration knew exactly what it was doing with family separations

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Trump administration officials have repeatedly denied that they pursued a policy of intentionally separating immigrant families arriving at the southern border in 2018 — depicting the separation of parents from their children as a side effect of a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all border crossers.

A new draft report from a government watchdog obtained by the New York Times shows they were lying.

“We need to take away children,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly told five US attorneys on the border during a meeting in May 2018 (to the lawyers’ alarm), adding that if parents care about their children, they shouldn’t bring them to the US in order to seek “amnesty.”

The Times’s description of the 86-page report from the Justice Department’s inspector general represents a damning indictment of the officials who were at the center of one of the Trump administration’s most heinous immigration policies, which generated widespread protests and came to symbolize his punitive approach to immigration enforcement.

While former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has largely taken the blame for the policy publicly, it turns out that Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein were much more directly involved in pushing for family separations than previously known.

When Chief of Staff John Kelly left the White House, he previously suggested that Sessions, who once infamously cited a Bible passage about law and order to defend the practice, was the architect of family separations.

And according to the Times, Sessions considered separating families to be a feature of the “zero tolerance” policy meant to deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border without authorization.

Rosenstein also emphasized the policy, telling the US attorneys that no children were too young to be separated from their parents. One of the prosecutors, John Bash, decided not to prosecute two cases involving families in which the children were just babies, and Rosenstein told him he should have gone ahead.

Bash later told his staff that the cases should not have been declined: “Per the A.G.’s policy, we should NOT be categorically declining immigration prosecutions of adults in family units because of the age of a child,” he said.

Rosenstein has largely evaded public scrutiny over family separations. But he had defended the practice during an American Bar Association conference in August 2018, arguing that it was consistent with the law concerning unauthorized immigration to the US, which he said must be applied equally to everyone, including those with children.

But for the duration of the zero-tolerance policy, prosecutors actually had a harder time enforcing the law in serious felony cases because they were overwhelmed in trying to prosecute every person who crossed the border without authorization. According to the report, a Texas prosecutor informed the DOJ in 2018 that “sex offenders” were consequently freed from custody. The US Marshals Service was also unprepared for the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy, meaning that it had to divert resources from serving warrants in other cases, the report said.

How the zero-tolerance policy led to family separations

Beginning in mid-2017, the federal government ran a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, under which it began filing criminal charges against anyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents with minor children — even though many of them intended to seek asylum in the US.

Parents were sent to immigration detention to await deportation proceedings. Their children, meanwhile, were sent to separate facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and, in some cases, released to other family members in the US or foster homes. (Previous administrations would have simply released the families from detention altogether in most cases.)

The Trump administration formalized the policy in May 2018. At least 5,000 families were separated before a California federal court ordered the federal government in June 2018 to reunify the families affected and end the policy.

The federal government, however, neglected to link the children to their parents in its databases, making the reunification process difficult, especially in the hundreds of cases of children who were under the age of 5, including one who was just 4 months old.

Unlike the Trump administration, the Obama administration did not have a policy of separating families, but it did try to detain families together on a wide scale and deport them as quickly as possible during the 2014 migrant crisis. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council, told the New York Times in 2018 that the administration had briefly considered pursuing family separations but quickly dropped the idea.

“We spent five minutes thinking it through and concluded that it was a bad idea,” she told the Times. “The morality of it was clear — that’s not who we are.”

Senior Trump administration officials, including Nielsen, have repeatedly denied that they pursued a policy of family separation:

Nielsen also told Congress in December 2018 that the administration “never had a policy for family separation.”

It was later revealed that she had, in fact, signed a memo greenlighting the practice, which clearly stated that DHS could “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.”

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the administration has tried to carry out what immigrant advocates call a new kind of family separation. This time, it’s pressuring parents already detained within the US to voluntarily separate from their children by presenting them with what the administration has called a “binary choice.” Either allow their children to be placed with relatives or a foster family in the US while the parents remain detained, or stay together as a family in indefinite detention and risk contracting the coronavirus.


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EU border agency ‘involved in illegal pushbacks’ of migrant boats

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Media investigation reveals ‘senior Frontex officials know about illegal practices by Greek border guards’.

Europe’s border security agency Frontex has been involved in several illegal “pushbacks” of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, a media investigation has revealed.

The investigation shows “senior Frontex officials know about illegal practices by Greek border guards – and that some of them are themselves implicated in pushbacks”, Germany’s Der Spiegel said on its website.

Also known as refoulements, “pushbacks” are incidents where refugees or migrants are illegally returned across a border to a country where they could face persecution.

Journalists say they have uncovered six cases since April when Frontex units did nothing to stop refugee boats in Greek waters being returned towards Turkey.

A video from a June incident shows a Frontex boat blocking one with refugees on it. A later shot from the same encounter shows it racing across the bow of the boat before leaving the area.

German public broadcaster ARD, journalist collective Lighthouse Reports, investigative platform Bellingcat and Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi were involved in the investigation alongside Der Spiegel.

The journalists say they compared “dozens” of videos, also checking satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts from refugees, migrants and Frontex workers.

Der Spiegel reported that more than 600 people from the European border agency equipped with boats, drones and aircraft are deployed in Greece, where many migrants first enter the European Union.

It added that Frontex would not comment on the individual cases uncovered by the investigation, but referred to a human rights and non-refoulement code of conduct supposed to bind staff.

On Friday, it posted on Twitter that its actions in support of Greek authorities were “in full respect of fundamental rights and international law”, adding that it “has been in contact with the Greek authorities about some incidents at sea in recent months”.

Athens had launched an “internal inquiry”, it added.

Greece’s conservative government has always rejected claims of illegal pushbacks taking place at its borders, regularly alleged by several charities.

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NASA probe leaking asteroid samples due to jammed door

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Images beamed back to ground control revealed it caught more material than scientists anticipated and was spewing excess of flaky asteroid rocks into space.

A US probe that collected a sample from an asteroid earlier this week retrieved so much material that a rock is wedged in the container door, allowing rocks to spill back out into space.

On Tuesday, the robotic arm of the probe, OSIRIS-REx, kicked up a debris cloud of rocks on Bennu, a skyscraper-sized asteroid some 320 million kilometres (200 million miles) from Earth and trapped the material in a collection device for the return to Earth.

But images of the spacecraft’s collection head beamed back to ground control revealed it had caught more material than scientists anticipated and was spewing an excess of flaky asteroid rocks into space.

The leakage had the OSIRIS-REx mission team scrambling to stow the collection device to prevent additional spillage.

“Time is of the essence,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told reporters on Friday.

Zurbuchen said mission teams will skip their chance to measure how much material they collected as originally planned and proceed to the stow phase, a fragile process of tucking the sample collection container in a safe position within the spacecraft without jostling out more valuable material.

NASA will not know how much material it collected until the sample capsule returns in 2023.

The troubleshooting also led mission leaders to forgo any more chances of redoing a collection attempt and instead commit to begin next March the spacecraft’s return to Earth.

“Quite honestly, we could not have performed a better collection experiment,” OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator Dante Lauretta said.

But with the door lodged open by a rock and the “concerning” images of sample spillage, “we’re almost the victim of our own success here”, he added.

The roughly $800m, minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, launched in 2016 to grab and return the first US sample of pristine asteroid materials.

Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

A sample could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth, scientists say.

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We will not allow Khashoggi’s killers to evade justice

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Last week, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the human rights organisation founded by late Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and his fiancee Hatice Cengiz, filed a joint lawsuit  in a Washington District Court against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and 28 other top Saudi officials over the journalist’s 2018 killing in Istanbul.

While the main architects of the murder have evaded justice in a sham Saudi trial that pinned all the blame on eight sacrificial underlings, we aim to make the actual masterminds pay for their crime here in the United States.

The facts of Khashoggi’s gruesome torture and dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul are well-established, thanks to recording devices placed in the consulate by Turkish intelligence, surveillance videos, phone intercepts, flight records, forensic work and intelligence gathered by various spy agencies, including our own CIA. Faced with incontrovertible proof of the crime, the Saudi government eventually accepted responsibility for the murder, but they still have not disclosed where they hid Khashoggi’s remains or acknowledged the involvement of the lead perpetrators – including MBS and his senior adviser Saud al-Qahtani.

Khashoggi’s shocking murder took away the man Cengiz was planning to spend the rest of her life with, a harm she suffers to this day. It also constituted a severe blow for DAWN. We lost our founder and executive director, and the network of supporters he had cultivated. Indeed, DAWN remained dormant for more than a year following the murder. On September 29, almost two years after Khashoggi’s murder, DAWN officially launched with a mission of upholding his vision: exposing those most responsible for human rights abuses and promoting democracy in the Arab world.

As part of our mission, we are now bringing this action because we want both justice for Khashoggi and a guilty verdict for those who murdered him. We believe the US represents the best forum in which we can hold his killers accountable. And we believe that the US has a special interest in seeking justice for Khashoggi, who, as a political dissident, had found refuge in the country and had strong ties to it. Besides having three US citizen sons, Khashoggi founded our American human rights organisation and ran it from an office in Washington until his murder.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder that dominated international headlines for months, MBS was isolated and weakened, a victim, it seemed, of his own worst and violent instincts. Many governments around the world condemned the killing, demanded accountability, and imposed travel bans and international sanctions on the killers. The US Congress passed not one but two bills to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia, killed by President Donald Trump’s vetoes. International corporations cancelled lucrative business deals.

Two years on, Saudi Arabia and MBS are still trying to weather the storm of the damage to their reputation caused by this murder, on top of the catastrophic war in Yemen and relentless persecution of reform activists in the country. While Saudi Arabia remains secure as the number one oil exporter and arms buyer in the world, the stench of its crimes has remained an overwhelming public relations burden.

Mayors of prominent cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Paris, have withdrawn from the virtual Group of 20 summit that will be hosted by Saudi Arabia in November, and dozens of European legislators have issued a resolution urging the European Union to downgrade its participation in the event. Just last week, Saudi Arabia failed in its attempt to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Apparently, Saudi Arabia’s standing is even worse than Russia and China’s, as the latter two managed to secure seats on the council.

DAWN is not alone in seeking accountability for Khashoggi’s murder. Since the journalist’s gruesome killing, human rights organisations and civil rights groups from around the world have been waging a sustained campaign involving press conferences, commemorations, panel discussions, vigils and freedom of information act litigations to bring those responsible for his death to justice. Recently, hundreds of non-governmental organisations declared a boycott of the G20 civil society meetings in the lead up to the summit. Most recently, a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats have passed legislation to pressure the Trump administration to declassify an intelligence report identifying those responsible for the murder.

With this lawsuit, we open another front in the struggle to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable. We want to make clear to MBS that we and others will trail him around the world to make impunity impossible for his grotesque and barbarous acts. But the stakes involved in the case are much larger than one man and one country. With autocracies on the rise across the world, Saudi Arabia, under the grip of MBS, is not the only oppressive regime that has sought to crush political dissent at home, while engaging in extrajudicial killings of political dissidents abroad.

A US lawsuit by itself may not deter MBS from targeting political dissidents abroad. But a successful suit with a punitive verdict will provide a measure of justice for Khashoggi, fracture the veneer of impunity for his killers, and permanently affix the charge of murderer to the crown prince and his “Tiger Squad” of thugs. A successful court verdict will also send a clear and unequivocal message that the highest authority we recognise is the law of nations, which does not bow to princely assassins.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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