- The Trump administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on people caught illegally crossing the border.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that 100% of border-crossing cases will be criminally prosecuted, thereby separating immigrant children from their parents.
- Top Trump officials have previously suggested separating families would deter illegal entries.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled a new “zero tolerance” policy on Monday for people caught illegally crossing the border, vowing to criminally prosecute every border-crossing case in a move that could split thousands of migrant children from their parents.
“If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said in a speech to law-enforcement officials in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
He continued: “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Sessions said the Department of Homeland Security will begin referring 100% of all illegal border crossing cases to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. If the migrants are then convicted and jailed, their children are automatically separated from them, as they are with jailed Americans who have children.
Other Trump administration officials on Monday sought to portray the family separation as a side-effect of the increased prosecutions, rather than a new policy with the explicit aim of punishing migrants for illegally crossing the border.
“I want to be clear. DHS does not have a blanket policy on separating families as a deterrent,” said Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to NBC News. “There is no new policy. This has always been the policy. But you will see more prosecutions because of the commitment to zero tolerance.”
Sessions’ speech on Monday was not the first time the Trump administration has floated splitting families at the border. Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, said last March he was considering a similar plan, but stopped short of implementing it after backlash from immigration advocates.
For months, lawmakers have sought answers from Homeland Security officials on how many families are separated at the border, and the Trump administration has previously indicated the number was low.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a Congressional committee in April that families are only separated when there is doubt that the adults found with the children are actually their parents.
“The standard is to – in every case – keep that family together as long as operationally possible,” Nielsen said. “Unfortunately, we have seen instances where traffickers have used children to cross the border and gain access illegally.”
But The New York Times reported last month that more than 700 children have been separated from adults who claim to be their parents since October. More than 100 of those children were under the age of four.
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