US border officials will temporarily stop handing over illegal immigrants with children for prosecution, a top official said Monday, in a reversal of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
In comments reported by the New York Times, Kevin K McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the decision would be implemented until a policy could be agreed with the Justice Department that would allow parents to be prosecuted without separating them from their children.
The move means a reversion to the “catch and release” approach used under the Obama administration. McAleenan was speaking to reporters at a detention facility in Texas, according to the Times.
In an executive order, President Donald Trump last week said families illegally crossing the border would be not be separated but instead detained together. It is, however, illegal to detain children in adult facilities.
The “zero-tolerance” policy of separating migrant children from their parents, introduced in April, has attracted global criticism.
Asked about McAleenan’s comments, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said “We’re not changing the policy. We’re simply out of resources.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the policy, saying failing to prosecute parents “would encourage more adults to bring more children illegally on a dangerous journey.”
“The president has made clear: we are going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally,” he said in a speech to school resource officers in Reno, Nevada. “But we are going to do everything in our power to avoid separating families.”
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” approach resulted in the separation of about 2,500 children from their parents at the border through the end of May.
At the weekend that the US Department of Homeland Security said it had since reunited 522 children with their parents.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis confirmed Monday that two military bases in Texas would be used to house migrants crossing over the southern border.
Mattis said that Fort Bliss, an Army base outside El Paso, and Goodfellow Air Force Base in central Texas would be used as tent camps, a Pentagon spokesman said. Mattis made the comments while travelling to Asia.
Migrant families will be moved into tents set up at Fort Bliss, while unaccompanied migrant children will be placed in temporary housing at Goodfellow, according to public broadcaster NPR and other media.
The Pentagon was being told to prepare for up to 20,000 unaccompanied minors in need of shelter, the reports say.
“We have asked the Pentagon to help with additional space but a lot of that will depend on being able to stop people from coming in illegally,” Sanders said, adding that resources were limited. She declined to detail existing resources.
Trump has also suggested in recent days that migrants who enter the country illegally should not be allowed to have their case heard in a court of law.
“Hiring many thousands of judges, and going through a long and complicated legal process, is not the way to go – will always be disfunctional [sic]. People must simply be stopped at the Border and told they cannot come into the US illegally,” he added in a tweet on Monday.
His comments have sparked concerns that he is keen to do away with due legal process and added to confusion over the government’s policy on dealing with migrants, including asylum seekers, many of whom are coming from countries experiencing upheavals and violence.