McALLEN, Tex. — The nation’s top border security official said Monday that his agency has temporarily stopped handing over migrant adults who cross the Mexican border with children for prosecution, undercutting claims by other Trump administration officials that “zero tolerance” for illegal immigration is still in place.
Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said his agency and the Justice Department should agree on a policy “where adults who bring their kids across the border — who violate our laws and risk their lives at the border — can be prosecuted without an extended separation from their children.”
Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for the surge of families crossing the border, many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court hearing. Mr. McAleenan said that the agency would continue to refer single adults for prosecution for illegally crossing the border, and that border agents would also separate children from adults if the child is in danger or if the adult has a criminal record.
Mr. McAleenan’s decision, conveyed to reporters at a processing center here, will at least temporarily revive a “catch and release” approach used during the Obama administration. President Trump has repeatedly railed against that approach, saying it invited waves of crime and violence into the United States.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that while there has been no official change in the zero-tolerance policy, the reality is that the government does not have the ability to detain all of the families crossing the border illegally.
“We’re not changing the policy,” Ms. Sanders said. “We’re simply out of resources.” She blamed Democrats in Congress for not changing immigration laws in ways that would keep migrant families out of the country in the first place. In fact, it was the Trump administration’s choice to impose a zero-tolerance policy that led to families being separated at the border.
“We’re working with Congress, hopefully, to provide more resources and the ability to actually enforce the law,” Ms. Sanders said, highlighting the practical challenge in making good on the president’s executive order to avoid separating children from their parents.
At the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to contradict Mr. McAleenan and Ms. Sanders, vowing Monday to continue enforcing Mr. Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Mr. Sessions told more than 1,000 school resource officers in Reno, Nev., that refusing to prosecute adults crossing illegally into the United States would be a disservice to the children they bring with them.
“The president has made this clear: We are going to prosecute those adults who came here illegally,” Mr. Sessions insisted, though he added that the government will “do everything in our power” to comply with the president’s order.
Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have both ratcheted up their hard-line immigration messaging while promising to keep families together.
“We want a system where when people come in illegally, they have to go out — a nice simple system that works,” Mr. Trump said Monday in brief remarks at the White House, mocking again the idea of hiring more immigration judges. “We want strong borders, and we want no crime.”
Prosecutions of adults crossing the Mexican border into the United States without children continued Monday unabated. And administration officials said that it was possible that legal cases against adults arriving at the border with children could resume once facilities to hold the families become available.
Mr. Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy in early April, telling prosecutors on the southwestern border to charge every illegal entry offense “to the extent practicable.” A month later, Mr. Sessions announced that the Department of Homeland Security would refer “100 percent of illegal southwest border crossings” for criminal prosecutions — a controversial move that led to families being separated at the border.
The decision set off weeks of protests, with Democrats and many Republicans calling on Mr. Trump to end the policy. From May 5 through June 20, the Border Patrol referred 2,262 adults traveling with children to the Justice Department for prosecution, according to an official familiar with the referrals.
More than 2,000 children remain in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. Federal officials are struggling to reunite children with their parents, some of whom have already been deported.
Mr. McAleenan said Monday that 538 children in Border Protection’s custody who were separated since May have been reunited with their parents. Those children were never sent to facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department.
At a shelter in downtown El Paso, Digna Emerita Pérez, a factory worker from El Salvador who spent a month in jail after her arrest for crossing the border without documentation, broke into tears when she found out that her son, 9, and daughter, 6, were in the same city.
But Nelvin Hernández, 48, a farm laborer from Honduras, who was released Saturday after a month in jail, was told his 17-year-old son, Noé, had been taken to Chicago. “My objective now is to find my son, regardless of what it takes,” he said Monday. “I’m nothing without my boy.”
But even before Monday’s announcement by Mr. McAleenan, the reality on the ground appeared far less simple than Mr. Trump or Mr. Sessions envisioned.
Administration officials said the zero-tolerance policy has been enforced in drastically different ways, depending on whether border communities have the resources to detain and prosecute new waves of immigrants.
A shelter in Tucson, Casa Alitas, takes in migrant families once American officials have released them into the country as their cases proceed. On Monday, Teresa Cavendish, who runs the shelter, said that government officials appear to be releasing many families into the United States together as a unit, rather than keeping them in detention — even when the families cross at unauthorized border points.
“These current families are very, very lucky,” she said.
At the towering federal courthouse in Tucson, the cases of dozens of recent border crossers were underway on Monday just as the Trump administration announced that it would halt the prosecution of people who enter with children.
In a hallway, Victoria Trull, 36, a defense lawyer for several of the migrants, described the whiplash of the past few weeks: first, a rise in prosecutions of adult border crossers; then the sudden appearance of adult border crossers who said they had been split from their children; then the Trump administration announcement that adults would no longer be split from their children; and then the suggestion that people might be sent back without a trial.
“It’s a little bit scary,” she said.
Defense Department officials said Monday that the Pentagon is preparing to build temporary housing for migrants at two military bases.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is traveling to China, told reporters with him that the details are still being worked out. But other Defense Department officials said that two bases that will house migrant children and possibly their families are Fort Bliss in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, Tex.
There remained confusion over who would be housed at the bases. One department official said that migrant families with adults charged with crimes would be housed at Fort Bliss, while unaccompanied children would be housed at Goodfellow. But the Pentagon had not officially said who would be housed where.
Democratic lawmakers continued to lash out at the president’s border policy, describing the prospect of migrant camps on military bases as akin to internment camps.
After visiting the border, two Democratic senators, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, faulted the Trump administration for lacking any apparent strategy to reunite children with their parents after the president’s executive order last week.
Mr. Trump “should go see for himself the crisis and chaos he has created,” Mr. Udall said on a conference call with reporters. Federal agencies, the senator said, “aren’t communicating with each other or with Congress about how they’re going to fix this.”
The senators said Congress should hold hearings to provide needed oversight. “This nation is heading for a train wreck at the border — a moral and legal train wreck, and already a humanitarian train wreck,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
But Mr. Trump was defiant and said that Democrats should support efforts to secure the border against immigrants who are criminals or who give false reasons for wanting to be in the United States.
“The Democrats want open borders, and they don’t care about crime, and they don’t care about our military,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Sessions, who was greeted in Reno by hundreds of protesters outside his speech venue, received a standing ovation from school safety officers in the audience before and after he spoke.
In addition to fiercely defending the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the attorney general emphasized the increase in the number of children who are sent across the border by themselves, currently more than 80 percent of the total, often with a paid smuggler.
Some of the children, Mr. Sessions said, are targeted by drug cartels, recruited by gangs and fall into a life of drug addiction and crime. He said that in March, Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended five juveniles who he said were smuggling 35 pounds of fentanyl.
“The compassionate thing to do is to protect our children from drugs and violence, to put criminals in jails, and secure our borders, have an immigration system that has integrity, and consistency, that is right, and just and moral,” he said. “The alternative is open borders, which is both radical and dangerous.”
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