US scales back immigrant 'zero-tolerance'

Elliot Spagat and Morgan Lee
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Trump

President Donald Trump has tweeted that immigrants should be turned back at the border

The Trump administration has scaled back a key element of its zero-tolerance immigration policy amid a global uproar over the separation of more than 2300 migrant families, halting the practice of turning over parents to prosecutors for charges of illegally entering the country.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Monday that President Donald Trump's order last week to stop splitting immigrant families at the border required a temporary halt to prosecuting parents and guardians, unless they had criminal history or the child's welfare was in question. He insisted the White House's zero tolerance policy toward illegal entry remained intact.

McAleenan's comments came shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration's tactics in a speech in Nevada and asserted that many children were brought to the border by violent gang members.

Together, their remarks added to the nationwide confusion as mothers and fathers struggled to reunite families that were split up by the government and sometimes sent to different parts of the country.

Families are growing increasingly frustrated in trying to reunite with their children after weeks apart.

Addressing reporters in Texas, McAleenan said he stopped sending cases of parents charged with illegally entering the country to prosecutors "within hours" after Trump signed an executive order last week to cease the separations.

The commissioner and Sessions insisted that the administration's policy remains in effect, even though immigrant parents are no longer being prosecuted under the new guidelines McAleenan said he is working on a plan to resume prosecutions.

"We can work on a plan where adults who bring kids across, who violate our laws, who risk their lives at the border could be prosecuted without an extended separation from their children," he said. "We're looking at how to implement that now."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stressed that the administration's reversal was only temporary because the government is running out of resources.

"We're going to run out of space," she said. "We're going to run out of resources to keep people together."

Providing a glimpse of relief, McAleenan said border apprehensions in June were trending "lower" from previous months but he declined to be more specific until numbers are released July 8.

McAleenan's remarks follow an announcement last week by the federal public defender's office in El Paso that federal prosecutors would no longer bring criminal charges against parents entering the U.S. if they have their child with them.

Amid the confusion, some Democratic members of Congress reiterated their frustrations that the Trump administration had not released its plan for reunifying families.

As many as 2300 children were separated from their migrant parents from the time the administration adopted the zero-tolerance policy until June 9, officials said.