Honduran migrants walk through Mexico toward the U.S. border with their 4-year-old daughter.

Honduran migrants walk through Mexico toward the U.S. border with their 4-year-old daughter. Rodrigo Abd / AP

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'60 Minutes' Scoop on Child Separations at Border Relied on Homeland Security Whistleblowers

Immigration rights specialist left government in October to work at progressive think tank.

The Sunday night television story was hard-hitting enough to draw a rebuttal from President Trump on Monday.

After CBS News' “60 Minutes” broadcast interviews with Homeland Security Department specialists criticizing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy that has separated arriving children from their parents and finding that the practice dated back further than the administration had disclosed and affected more children, Trump told reporters on the White House lawn, “Obama had a separation policy. We all had the same policy. I tried to do it differently but Obama had the same separation policy but people didn't like to talk about it."

Trump also tweeted that he considered the broadcast a “phony story.”

In detailing the parental anguish, risk of long-term childhood trauma and conflicting administration statements on the policy, the show’s producers relied on a trio of whistleblowers affiliated with DHS, one of whom left his job in October after the department continued to minimize the problem of child separations that the Justice Department had argued would deter future illegal border crossings. "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said back in May.

“60 Minutes” also concluded that the policy—which the administration later withdrew—began nine months earlier than known. And it relied on reports from the DHS inspector general finding that the agency was "not fully prepared" and "struggled to provide accurate, complete, reliable data on family separations."  The department estimated that 2,600 children were separated and detained, but CBS reporting put the number at 5,000.

Interviewed on camera was former Homeland Security official Scott Shuchart, who served as senior adviser to the officer for civil rights and civil liberties from 2010 to October 2018. He said the Trump appointees implementing the policy never consulted experts inside government.

"If they had come to you, what would your office have said?" correspondent Scott Pelley asked him.

"We would've had advice on the way that needed to be done, on the recordkeeping that needed to be done," Shuchart replied. "And our advice on that wasn't sought out. And when we tried to provide it, it was ignored."

Shuchart, who now works at the Center for American Progress, was previously a litigator on immigration issues for Altshuler Berzon LLP in San Francisco and at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP in New York City.

Also bringing detail to story were two medical inspectors working with DHS—pediatric internist Dr. Scott Allen and mental health specialist Dr. Pamela McPherson. They faulted the department’s on-site care providers for misunderstanding the differences between adult and children’s vaccine dosages and for potentially inflicting long-term trauma on toddlers brought to the border by desperate parents.

Both had told their stories to the Senate Whistleblower Caucus and worked closely with attorneys at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.

CBS News also included comments from Cecilia Munoz, who handled immigration for the Obama administration as the director of the Domestic Policy Council, attacking the lack of consultation with career staff. When pressed for a solution, Munoz, now a vice president with New America, said, “We have a broken immigration system. I've been working on this in this policy area for 30 years; I'll be the first to say we have a broken immigration system. The question is what we do about that. We lack the political will to fix it. And we will continue to create crises, crises of our own making, until we fix it.”