WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Monday that the agency has temporarily stopped referring migrants caught entering the country illegally with their children for criminal prosecution, even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that the administration would continue to enforce a “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy against adult migrants.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters in Texas that the criminal referrals to the Department of Justice were ended hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday reversing his administration’s controversial policy of separating children from their parents when detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking at Monday’s news briefing, said the administration had not officially changed the zero-tolerance policy, but rather had run “out of resources” to detain adults and their children together as outlined in the executive order signed by Trump last week.
The president’s order, signed in response to public outcry over the separation of more than 2,300 children from their parents, calls for families to be detained together. But a 1997 federal court settlement bars the government from keeping children in adult detention centers for more than 20 days. Sanders warned lawmakers that the administration would not be able to meet the time frame without Congress acting on new immigration laws.
“This is a temporary solution,” Sanders said. “This isn’t going to last. Congress still has to step up. They still have to do their job. This will only last a short amount of time, because we’re going to run out of space, we’re going to run out of resources in order to keep people together.”
Sessions, speaking at a conference of school safety officers in Reno, Nevada, said the administration would continue to push for the prosecution of adults caught entering the country illegally, saying it was “not fair to the children” making the journey to the United States to back down from the policy.
“Having an immigration system that has integrity and consistency is right and just and moral,” Sessions said. “The alternative is open borders, which is dangerous and not a realistic prospect for America.”
More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents after the administration implemented its zero-tolerance policy in April. Children were placed in facilities throughout the country — including in New York City and Long Island — where the majority remain as they await to be reunited with their parents.
Meanwhile, Trump continued to decry the nation’s immigration laws that allow asylum-seekers to legally request residency in the United States before federal immigration courts. Trump, on Twitter and speaking to reporters at the White House, questioned legislative proposals calling for more judges to be appointed to reduce a backlog of more than 700,000 immigration court cases.
“Hiring many thousands of judges, and going through a long and complicated legal process, is not the way to go — will always be disfunctional,” Trump tweeted, misspelling the word dysfunctional. “People must simply be stopped at the Border and told they cannot come into the U.S. illegally.”
Trump, speaking to reporters before an Oval Office meeting with the king and queen of Jordan, said there were proposals floated to add some 5,000 immigration judges, but did not detail where he obtained that figure. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has introduced a bill that calls for the addition of 750 immigration judges, but that has been the largest figure recorded so far.
The president said the addition of judges would lead “to graft and a lot of other things.”
“We want a system where when people come in illegally, they have to go out,” Trump told reporters. “A nice simple system that works.”