Families at Border Aren’t Being Prosecuted, Official Says

The nation’s top in charge of border control said his agency isn’t prosecuting parents who illegally enter the country with their children, an acknowledgment that the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy isn’t being applied universally.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said he ordered a temporary suspension of prosecutions of parents last week, within hours of President

Donald Trump’s

executive order in which he committed to stop separating families after they are detained.

The decision to at least temporarily end​prosecutions of adults caught with their children could lead to the faster release of families because Immigration and Customs Enforcement only has three family detention centers, which officials said are near capacity.


Sarah Sanders,

the White House press secretary, acknowledged the Customs and Border Protection policy shift, but blamed it on the constraints the government faces. “We’re not changing the policy. We’re simply out of resources,” she said.

Mr. McAleenan and Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted on Monday that the administration’s zero-tolerance policy requiring the prosecution of all adults entering illegally remained in effect.

However, the administration’s policy remained muddled as it wrestles with conflicting goals: the desire to prosecute every adult entering illegally; and to avoid separating parents from their children, who can’t be jailed with them for long periods under U.S. law.

Its prior approach of separating adults and children resulted in the detention of more than 2,300 children over a period of weeks, prompting a broad outcry in the U.S.

At the same time, Republican leaders in the House sought to rally support for an overhaul immigration bill expected to come to a vote this week, part of a last-ditch effort to show progress on the issue ahead of November’s congressional elections. But Mr. Trump has done little to smooth out the political crosscurrents complicating the House GOP effort, even as he called again on Monday for replacing what he termed the nation’s “horrible” immigration laws. At a rally in South Carolina Monday night, he attacked Democrats again over the issue.

Mr. Trump’s executive order last week committed to stop separating families and instead detain families together while their asylum claims are adjudicated, even as he maintains the policy of prosecuting all adults for illegal entry. The approach faces legal and logistical hurdles.

Some aides last week urged Mr. Trump not to sign the executive order, saying it threatened to “water down” the zero-tolerance policy, an official said. They encouraged him to stay “tough and enforce the law,” the official said.

An administration official described the Customs and Border Protection position as “not helpful.”

The official, describing the administration’s difficulty in implementing major policies, said the president issues “broad guidance” but that “these issues are litigated in the details.” The official faulted the administration not for a lack of coordination between federal agencies, but for a “lack of people agreeing.”

At a press tour in Texas, Mr. McAleenan said that parents or adult guardians could still face separation or prosecution in instances where there is a child-welfare issue, criminal-history issues or other safety concerns. And single adults are all still being .

Families with adults who aren’t referred for prosecution are passed along to ICE. Most of the families, who are from Central America and say they are fleeing violence there, are expected to apply for asylum in a process that could take years to complete due to persistent backlogs in the federal immigration courts. While waiting, many families are released into the U.S.

In El Paso, Texas, at a news conference Monday organized by Annunciation House, a group that provides services to migrants, Miriam, a Guatemalan, said she and her 4-year-old son were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border about a week and a half ago.

Officials told her they had to take custody of her child and removed him early in the morning while he was still asleep, she said. She was only told that the child was being taken to a hostel, she said.

Miriam, who would only provide her first name and has claimed asylum, said she finally learned on Monday that her son is in New York and spoke with a social worker there. She said she wanted to speak to her son, but that he resisted because he is angry at her, believing she abandoned him.

“Since they took him from me, I can’t sleep,” Miriam said, repeatedly tearing up. “I didn’t imagine that they would take my son.”

Ruben Garcia,

Annunciation House’s director, said several dozen parents were released by ICE and transported to his facility in the hopes of being reunited with their children.

Yet parents said all they received was a 1-800 number to call to seek information about their children’s locations. Mr. Garcia said the parents were experiencing difficulties—waiting for more than an hour on hold when they call, and learning nothing once they made contact with an official. He said typically they were asked to provide information to help locate their children and to check back in about five days.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at Alicia.Caldwell@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 26, 2018, print edition as ‘U.S. Suspends Family Prosecutions.’

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