The nation’s top immigration and border officials are urging Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain and prosecute all parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children, a stark change in policy that would result in the separation of families that until now have mostly been kept together.
If approved, the zero-tolerance measure could split up thousands of families, although officials say they would not prosecute those who turn themselves in at legal ports of entry and claim asylum. More than 20,000 of the 30,000 migrants who sought asylum during the first quarter – the period from October-December – of the currrent fiscal year crossed the border illegally.
In a memorandum that outlines the proposal and was obtained by The Washington Post, officials say that threatening adults with criminal charges and prison time would be the “most effective” way to reverse the steadily rising number of attempted crossings. Most parents now caught crossing the border illegally with their children are quickly released to await civil deportation hearings.
The memo sent to Nielsen on Monday – and signed by acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan, Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services L. Francis Cissna and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan – said attempted crossings by parents with children increased to nearly 700 a day last week, the highest level since 2016. The officials predicted that the number will continue to rise if Nielsen does not act.
Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who has filed a federal lawsuit in California over earlier instances of family separations at the border, said the proposal “makes children as young as 2 and 3 years old pawns in a cruel public policy experiment.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to crack down on illegal border crossings. He renewed that pledge this month, signing his second directive ordering the end of “catch and release,” a term used by critics to describe the current practice.
The Post subsequently reported that the government has released about 100,000 parents and children since Trump took office. Officials say they are forced to do so by federal laws and court rulings that limit the detention of children, in addition to limits imposed by a lack of detention space for adults.
After Trump’s directive, issued April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered U.S. attorneys along the border from Texas to California to prosecute “to the extent practicable” all illegal border crossers referred to them by the Department of Homeland Security. Monday’s memo urged Nielsen to refer for prosecution “100 percent” of the adults held at the border, “including those initially arriving or apprehended with minors.”
Such a policy would mean separating parents and children, because the parents would be placed in criminal detention, where children cannot be held.
The memo said the Trump administration tried this approach in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which covers West Texas and part of New Mexico, between July 2017 and November 2017.
Afterward, the number of families trying to cross illegally plunged by 64 percent, the memo said. “This decrease was attributed to the prosecution of adults . . . for illegal entry,” the memo said. ” Of note, the numbers began rising again after the initiative was paused.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Maria Sacchetti