The Trump administration will separate children from the adults who accompanied them across the Southwest border, if they’re caught entering the United States without authorization, Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed Monday. It’s a consequence of the administration’s new policy of prosecuting every person who uses the border to enter the United States illegally.
“If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you for smuggling,” Sessions told the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, who had gathered for a spring conference in Arizona. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you. And that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring ‘em across the border illegally. It’s not our fault if somebody does that.”
Parents or guardians who face prosecution will be taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service, while their children will be placed into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. During civil deportation proceedings, families are usually allowed to remain together.
Sessions’ announcement builds on his “zero-tolerance policy” towards people who enter the country illegally, which he first announced last month. But efforts to split up parents and children appear to have gone on long before that: Immigration officials separated more than 700 undocumented children from adults who said they were their parents between October 2017 and April 2018, a New York Times report found.
Children may sometimes be separated from adults they’re traveling with due to safety reasons, according to a Department of Homeland statement to the Times for its report.
“As required by law, D.H.S. must protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders,” an agency spokesperson told the Times, “and occasionally this results in separating children from an adult they are traveling with if we cannot ascertain the parental relationship, or if we think the child is otherwise in danger.”
But back in March 2017, then–Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly suggested separating children from their parents for a very different reason: deterring immigration.
"Yes, I'm considering [that], in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents,” Kelly, who is now White House chief of staff, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “It's more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network."
While the Obama administration considered separating children from their parents, former Obama Department of Justice official Leon Fresco told CNN that the idea was ultimately found to be “too detrimental to the safety of the children to separate them from their parents.”
Children who enter the country without their parents and without authorization are typically taken in by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR will then search for “sponsors,” or people who can take care of the children, such as a relative.
That agency’s director, Scott Lloyd, has recently come under fire, after four teen girls sued the Trump administration over his refusal to allow them to get abortions.
Cover image: Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies event Monday, May 7, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sessions says the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to refer anyone who enters the United States illegally on the Mexican border to his office for prosecution. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)