Border authorities overseeing the detention of illegal immigrant families have the authority to let children under five stay with their parents or legal guardians, an administration official said Tuesday.
Instead of referring adults for criminal prosecution, Customs and Border Protection field supervisors can elect to keep them in civil immigration detention with their very young children, agency official Brian Hastings told reporters on a conference call.
The policy is not new, Hastings added, but the Trump administration had not previously elaborated on possible exceptions to its “zero tolerance” policy of referring as many illegal entrants for criminal prosecution as possible.
The clarification comes amid increasing furor over the government’s policy of separating illegal immigrant families while the adults are prosecuted for unlawful entry or other immigration-related crimes. The Trump administration has argued the tough approach is needed to reverse a rising tide of illegal immigration by families and unaccompanied children, but immigration activists and many religious leaders say the practice is cruel and immoral. (RELATED: ‘We Do Not Separate Babies From Adults’: DHS Denies Allegation It ‘Ripped’ Breastfeeding Baby From Mother)
Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said Tuesday the agency is currently housing about 12,000 migrant children in its network of contracted shelters. Of those, roughly 10,000 arrived as unaccompanied minors, and the rest have been separated from adults that brought them across the border.
Amid the outrage over the “zero tolerance” policy, President Donald Trump’s Democratic opponents are calling for the resignation of senior administration officials, and his Republican allies are scrambling to craft legislation to deal with family separations. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows introduced Tuesday a bill that would allow the government to keep families in immigration detention together and provide for expedited hearings for those that make asylum claims.
Despite concerns from within his own party, Trump has shown no sign of backing off the “zero tolerance” initiative. In a series of tweets Tuesday morning, he said the policy would continue until lawmakers addressed the issue in an immigration bill.
“We must always arrest people coming into our Country illegally,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Of the 12,000 children, 10,000 are being sent by their parents on a very dangerous trip, and only 2000 are with their parents, many of whom have tried to enter our Country illegally on numerous occasions.”
“Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration,” he added.
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