Confusion Over How To Reunite Children Taken From Their Parents
President Trump’s executive order to halt family separations unleashed confusion in Washington and at the Mexico border Thursday, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would stop referring such cases for prosecution and migrant parents arrived at courthouses in Texas and Arizona wearing handcuffs only to be led away without facing charges.
After a senior Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post that the agency would freeze criminal referrals for migrant parents who cross illegally with children, Justice Department officials insisted that their “zero tolerance” policy remained in force and that U.S. attorneys would continue to prosecute those entering the United States unlawfully.
On Capitol Hill, a hard-line immigration bill failed to pass and a key vote on a more moderate version of the legislation was postponed. The Pentagon, meanwhile, agreed to house up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases in coming months. And despite the ongoing outcry over the separation of more than 2,300 migrant children from their parents since May 5, Trump administration officials gave no assurances that the families would be swiftly reunited.
In scenes reminiscent of the botched “Muslim ban” in the early days of the Trump presidency, federal agencies Thursday were largely left to interpret the sudden changes ordered by the White House the day before and figure out how to implement them. A family separation system that had been planned and tested over several months vanished at the president’s pen, with no stated plan to reverse its effects.
Administration officials held a meeting Thursday evening to grapple with the conflicting understandings of what the executive order was meant to do. People familiar with the discussions said the president had indicated his main goal was to lessen the public controversy surrounding separated families. Within the administration, however, the two main agencies tasked with following the order interpreted it very differently. The Justice Department filed court papers seeking permission from a judge to detain families together; Customs and Border Protection officials initially decided the order meant adults apprehended with children should be released, these people said.
The administration’s about-face leaves intact its “zero tolerance” policy toward those who break the law, but the senior Customs and Border Protection official, asked to explain how the government would change enforcement practices, said Border Patrol agents were instructed to stop sending parents who arrive in the United States illegally with children to federal courthouses for prosecution.
“We’re suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain how the agency has interpreted and implemented Trump’s order.
A Justice Department representative said that prosecutions would continue but that the decision to refer migrants for criminal charges after illegal crossings rests with the U.S. Border Patrol.Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has embodied the administration’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration and was the principal advocate for its “zero tolerance” policy, said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that the objective was not to take children away from their parents. “It hasn’t been good, and the American people don’t like the idea that we are separating families,” the attorney general told CBN on Thursday. “We never really intended to do that.”
When Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in May, he warned that families who cross illegally would be split up. The move was condemned by multiple faith groups, including members of Sessions’s denomination, the United Methodist Church.
Maureen Franco, the chief public defender for the Western District of Texas, said she was told Thursday by U.S. Attorney John Franklin Bash that he was suspending prosecutions of misdemeanor and felony illegal entry cases involving people who were apprehended with children. Bash issued the decision because the Western District of Texas — which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio — lacks the facilities to house families while parents await disposition of their criminal cases, Franco said.
The prosecutor’s office later issued a statement saying the zero tolerance policy “is still in effect but there is a necessary transition that will need to occur now that those charged are no longer being transferred to the custody of US Marshals and are staying together with their children in the custody of our partners at DHS. As part of that transition, the office today dismissed certain cases that were pending when the President issued the order.”