President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing back against the narrative in the mainstream media and among open-borders advocates that federal authorities are heartlessly separating children from their parents.
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, speaking Friday to reporters on condition of anonymity, challenged what he called false reports in news stories and blasted MSNBC host Joe Scarborough for comparing immigration enforcers to Nazis.
Under the controversial policy announced earlier this year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Border Patrol officers detain illegal immigrants — without their children — in three cases: When the adult has been referred for prosecution for illegal entry; when authorities determine that the child’s safety is at risk; or when authorities suspect that the adult traveling with a child is lying about the parental relationship.
“We are left with a choice of whether to enforce the law at the border or to allow individuals who enter the country illegally with children … to go free and not face consequences for their illegal actions,” the official said. “Advocates want us to ignore the law and to give people with families a free pass.”
The official said children in short-term federal custody live with “some of the highest detention standards in the world for children.”
He also stressed that the policy does not apply to families arriving at border crossing stations and presenting themselves for asylum. That is a legal process, and applicants are not subject to prosecution.
DHS officials say that Border Patrol separated 1,995 children traveling with 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31. In addition, some 200 adults traveling with children during that period have been accused of fraudulently posing as parents.
A Department of Justice (DOJ) official told reporters the agency decides to bring charges based on available detention space and the capacity of the courts. But he added that the department has accepted close to 100 percent of all the cases that DHS has referred under the new policy.
The policy has drawn fierce criticism from immigration advocates, who argue that breaking up families is cruel. Trump told reporters Friday on the White House lawn that he does not like separating children from parents and blamed it on Democrats’ refusal to close legal loopholes.
“I hate the children being taken away,” the president said. “The Democrats have to change their law. That’s their law. That’s the Democrats’ law. We can change it tonight. We can change it right now.”
The loophole stems not from a law but a 1997 court settlement that severely restricted the ability of the federal government to detain children beyond 20 days. But administration critics argue that the administration created the problem by deciding to file criminal charges against illegal immigrants rather than seeking deportation orders through immigration courts.
“Yes, this is a tough policy. But people need to remind themselves that these are people who are making a conscious decision.”
Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at the low-immigration advocacy group NumbersUSA, told LifeZette that the administration’s policy is reasonable. He said the blame should be placed on the illegal immigrants.
“They’re the ones who are putting themselves in this situation by coming illegally,” he said. “Yes, this is a tough policy. But people need to remind themselves that these are people who are making a conscious decision.”
Chmielenski acknowledged, however, that the policy has not played well to the public at large.
“What doesn’t help is you got the spread of false rumors out there,” he said.
The DHS official who briefed reporters said emotion has overtaken the facts in the debate. He took particular umbrage at news stories that he contended are flat-out wrong and urged reporters to confirm facts of salacious stories before relying on third-hand information. He said the agency recognizes that some coverage will be negative.
“We want it to be factually negative,” he said.
One widely shared story involves an allegation that Border Patrol officials had ripped a baby away from its mother while breastfeeding. The homeland security official said authorities tried hard to track down the origin of the story and found no information indicating that it is true.
“It’s not our policy,” he said. “It’s not something we would support happening.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who long has advocated in favor of immigration reform that would result in amnesty, said he does not like family separation. He said Trump could change the policy with a phone call.
But in an interview on CNN, Graham defended the administration.
“The jails are full of people, parents,” he said. “So, if you got a problem with putting somebody in jail who’s a parent, jails are full … Let’s don’t talk about parents who are separated from their children because they commit crimes. That happens every day.”
Graham said he understands why people want the government to stop detaining illegal immigrants who cross the border illegally.
“But that just incentivizes illegal immigration … I’m sure that people are going to be less likely to bring their kids to America if they get separated than if they live together and get released into the country,” he said.