WASHINGTON — Nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the U.S. border over a six-week period during a crackdown on illegal entries, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
The figures show that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31. The separations were not broken down by age, and included separations for illegal entry, immigration violations or possible criminal conduct by the adult.
Under a “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security officials are now referring all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.
Sessions announced the effort April 6, and Homeland Security began stepping up referrals in early May, effectively putting the policy into action.
Since then, stories of weeping children torn from the arms of their frightened parents have flooded the media and the policy has been widely criticized by church groups, politicians and children’s advocates who say it is inhumane. A battle in Congress is brewing in part over the issue.
Some immigrant advocates have said women were being separated from their infants — a charge Homeland Security and Justice officials flatly denied. They also said the children were being well cared for and disputed reports of disorder and mistreatment at the border.
On Thursday, Sessions cited the Bible in defending the policy, arguing the recent criticisms were not “fair or logical and some are contrary to law.”
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said.
The new figures are for people who tried to enter the U.S. between official border crossings. Asylum seekers who go directly to official crossings are not separated from their families, except in specific circumstances — such as if officials can’t confirm the relationship between the minors and adults, if the safety of the children is in question, or if the adult is being prosecuted.
There were an additional 38 minors separated at ports of entry in May through June 6. There were more than 55 in April and a high of 64 in March, according to the figures.
The policy to refer all adults for charges was publicly announced May 7, though the Justice Department announced it would prosecute 100 percent of the cases referred to it at the beginning of April.
On a conference call with reporters on Friday, Department of Homeland Security officials told reporters that prosecutions have more than doubled, but acknowledges they are not currently at 100 percent.
Asked why they are prioritizing families in this effort as opposed to single adults, as they get closer to 100 percent, officials declined to explain how they choose whom to refer.
“We make decisions based on the ability to detain and the ability of courts to take these cases, but we no longer exempt categories or classes of individuals,” a Department of Homeland Security official said.
“By and large, we are accepting nearly all of the referrals that we get from our counterparts at DHS, we continue to work with the federal judiciary on practical solutions to differing caps that they have,” said a Justice Department official. “In terms of declining prosecution, we’re not going to get into specifics.”