She asked the White House to allow her to defer her decision on the program for six months so she could travel to Central America herself and announce that the policy was imminent, in hopes that doing so would encourage families that needed to seek asylum to use legal ports of entry.
Stephen Miller was unwilling to wait.
Nielsen told me he claimed to be in contact with Border Patrol officials who were eager to get started.
With him, Nielsen said, “the tone is always frantic. ‘The sky is falling, the world is ending, it’s going to be all your fault. The president promised this, and we have to deliver on the promise.’”
“The White House was growing frustrated” with the delays, an adviser to Nielsen told me.
“They basically said, ‘Look, the attorney general gave you a lawful order. You need to execute it.’”
This was not true.
“And we kept pushing back. Eventually the pressure got to be just overwhelming.”
McAleenan and Homan were saying, “We’re ready to go. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to go. We’ve got it in place. We’ve got a good battle rhythm with DOJ. We can do this.”
None of the other agencies that would be affected by Zero Tolerance had been alerted to what was looming.
That included the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just say it: It’s really not like HHS’s opinion mattered here,” John Zadrozny told me, explaining that because HHS did not have any authority over immigration policy, it was not uncommon for the department to be left out of such discussions.
Zadrozny said that although he did not recall a specific decision to keep the Zero Tolerance policy secret from HHS, it wouldn’t surprise him if there was one.
“There were times when we were having meetings where we would specifically say, ‘Keep HHS out of it; they’re just going to babble and cause problems. They’re not actually going to be helpful.’”
Astonishing as this sounds, it seems that no one at the department that would be charged with taking care of thousands of separated children was given any official warning that the Zero Tolerance program was in the offing.
“We did not find evidence that DOJ leadership had discussions about the zero tolerance policy or family separations with HHS prior to the announcement,” the inspector general’s report later concluded.
At the end of April, several developments took place almost at once.
Gene Hamilton’s office asked the five U.S. attorneys who were stationed in southwestern border districts if their staffs had seen an increase in prosecution referrals for parents traveling with children based on Sessions’s April memo, and if not, when they expected to.