Acting DHS Chief: Family Separation ‘Not On The Table’

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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The acting head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shot down the idea that the Trump administration would reintroduce family separation of illegal migrants.

“I think the president has been clear that family separation is not on the table and again this was a zero tolerance prosecution initiative that was targeted at adults violating the law,” acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Tuesday to NBC anchor Lester Holt. “They were always intended to be reunited.”

McAleenan’s answer comes after growing speculation that the White House would introduce a different version of family separation as it seeks to clamp down on the southern border crisis. The interim DHS chief — who did suggest that the policy deterred illegal behavior — said Tuesday that the administration would pursue other reforms instead.

“A better system, as I’ve said many times, would allow us to detain families together during fair and expeditious immigration proceedings and getting actual immigration results from courts, so that’s what’s missing from the current situation,” he continued.

The interview was McAleenan’s first since former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in early April, leaving him as the interim leader. McAleenan — the former commissioner of Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP) with nearly two decades of immigration enforcement experience — was tapped to lead the agency at a time when the U.S.-Mexico border is experiencing unprecedented numbers of Central American family migrants.

President Donald Trump asked for Nielsen’s resignation after growing frustrated over the border crisis, and some reports suggest it was because she was not on board with reintroducing the controversial family separation policy.

The Trump administration faced extreme scrutiny in 2018 while it was implementing its “zero tolerance” policy against illegal migrants. The policy resulted in a large number of parents getting detained separately from their children, prompting condemnation from Democrats and human rights groups. Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 that ultimately ended family separation.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 18: Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan appears before the Senate Finance Subcommittee, on July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The hearing was focused was on trade and commerce at U.S. ports of entry. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan appears before the Senate Finance Subcommittee, on July 18, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Recent reports indicated the White House was considering a revamped version of family separation, a policy known as “binary choice.” Under the proposal, illegal migrants would be given the choice to either voluntarily allow their kids to be separated from them or they can waive their child’s protections and allow every member of their family to be detained together. (RELATED: Border Patrol Costs Exploding As More Migrant Families Reach The US)

If McAleenan’s comments are indicative of the president’s thinking, binary choice is not going to be implemented.

“So prosecuting violations of the law does have a consequence and it does deter behavior, but it did not work if you lose the public trust,” the new DHS leader explained, somewhat defending the controversial policy. However, he added that from “an enforcement perspective, it’s not worth it.”

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