WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has insisted that the Trump administration does not have a policy of separating immigrant families. In fact, the administration's stricter border enforcement - known as the "zero tolerance' policy - has resulted in splitting up children and their parents.
By the administration's own count, nearly 2,000 children were separated from 1,940 adults in the six-week period from April 19 through May 31.
The family separations have prompted bipartisan outrage.
Laura Bush, the wife of former President George Bush, called the policy "cruel" and "immoral" in a Washington Post op-ed published online Sunday. "It breaks my heart."
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said the policy is "inconsistent with our American values," adding that "we need to fix our immigration laws, but using children is not the answer."
Late on Sunday, Nielsen tweeted: "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.'
Since then, Nielsen and President Trump have sought to distance the administration from the images of crying children being taken away from their parents.
In a speech Monday to the National Sheriffs' Association in New Orleans - a few hours after her tweet - Nielsen said the administration would "not apologize' for doing its job. She also tweeted several more times, calling on Congress to change the nation's immigration laws.
Trump has blamed "bad laws that the Democrats gave us' for the family separations and has said the administration has no choice. However, no law requires the administration to separate families at the border.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions detailed the "zero-tolerance" policy in a speech on May 7, saying immigrants who illegally enter the U.S. along the Mexican border would be prosecuted criminally.
Sessions acknowledged then that it would mean separating parents from children if they come into the U.S. illegally. Under the "zero tolerance' policy, adults suspected of crossing the border illegally are sent to federal jails or other detention centers to await prosecution. If they have children accompanying them, the young people are placed in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, because children cannot be held in adult facilities.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Sessions said in May. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
On Friday, an official with the Department of Homeland Security told reporters that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31.
And on Monday, Nielsen herself underscored the stricter policy.
"Illegal actions have and must have consequences,' she said. "No more free passes, no more get-out-of-jail-free cards.'
Sessions cited a Bible passage to defend the administration's policies after the separations sparked widespread outrage and criticism from religious leaders and immigration advocates. "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order," he said Thursday.
Nielsen said that for those seeking asylum at ports of entry, the Trump administration has "continued the policy from previous administrations.'
In fact, Sessions has ended asylum protections for those fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence, even if they come to the U.S. at a legal entry point. Many immigrants now coming across the border are fleeing rampant gang violence in Central America, and many of them are parents with children.
Sessions has also vowed to prosecute any fraudulent applications for asylum. He said that fake claims of fear are a major problem within the asylum system and that immigration lawyers have been helping immigrants game the system.
That has led to some additional family separations at ports of entry, according to some media reports, but not at the same level as it's occurring at illegal crossing points.
In 2014, President Barack Obama faced a dramatic influx of immigration from Central America.
DHS officials announced at the time that they would deport anyone who entered the U.S. illegally. And they expanded access to immigration detention centers, where families were held with their children while they were awaiting immigration hearings.
"We detained them together. We didn't separate them," said Cecilia Muñoz, who was a policy adviser to Obama.
But they did not prosecute those migrants criminally. And court rulings eventually required the administration to end some of the extended detentions of parents and children.
So some families were released in the U.S. before their immigration cases were heard. Immigration hawks have blasted that policy as "catch and release,' because immigrants can often flee, fail to show up for their hearings and stay in the U.S. illegally.
Under the Obama administration, "for the most part, those parents were not prosecuted' if they entered illegally with children, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes immigration and refugee policies.
The Trump administration said Thursday that it has reunified 364 children ages 5 and older with their families after they were separated at the border, still leaving hundreds to go before a court-imposed deadline a week away.
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