US temporarily scales back ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy

White House says administration has only temporarily halted part of its policy because it’s ‘going to run out of space’.

US immigration
A mother from Honduras holds her one-year-old child in the back of a transport van after surrendering to US Border Patrol agents [David J Phillip/AP Photo]

A US official has said the administration will scale back part of its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy as US President Donald Trump doubled down on his suggestion that undocumented individuals be deported without due process.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said on Monday that Trump’s executive order last week to stop splitting migrant and refugee families at the border required a temporary halt in handing over parents and guardians for prosecution, unless they had a criminal history or the child’s welfare was in question.

Trump’s order came amid widespread outrage over the separation of more than 2,300 migrant and refugee families at the border.

McAleenan’s announcement effectively reverts this portion of the policy back to the “catch and release” approach of former President Barack Obama, who was also heavily criticised for his harsh immigration strategy. Trump himself was a staunch critic of the policy, saying it invited criminals and violence into the country – an assertion that rights groups have said is false. 

McAleenan insisted that the White House’s zero tolerance approach to immigration remained intact.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy in April, saying that any person caught crossing the border between official ports of entry would be prosecuted.

On Monday, he defended the approach in a speech in Nevada, somewhat contradicting what McAleenan said just hours later. 

“We’re going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally. We’re going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families. All federal agencies are working hard to accomplish this goal,” Sessions said.

Last week, the Department of Justice asked a California court to modify a federal court ruling that said migrant and refugee children can only be kept in detention for up to 20 days. Lawyers have said that the move is unlikely to hold up in the courts.

Undocumented immigrant families are released from detention at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas  [Loren Elliott/Reuters] 
Undocumented immigrant families are released from detention at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas  [Loren Elliott/Reuters] 

Addressing reporters in Texas, McAleenan said he stopped sending cases of parents 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.

“This will only last a short amount of time, because we’re going to run out of space, we’re going to run out of resources in order to keep people together,” she said.

Not been told when they’ll see their children

Monday’s announcement came after Trump repeated his call to deprive undocumented immigrations of due process. 


“Hiring many thousands of judges, and going through a long and complicated legal process, is not the way to go – will always be dysfunctional,” the president said on Twitter.

“People must simply be stopped at the Border and told they cannot come into the US illegally. Children brought back to their country,” he added.

That suggestion has been slammed by rights groups and lawyers as “unconstitutional” and “illegal”.

There were also continued reports of confusion among mothers and fathers who struggled to reunite with their children who were separated.

A mother from Guatemala wiped tears from her eyes Monday as she told reporters in El Paso, Texas, about her 4-year-old son being taken away after they crossed the border.

The boy ended up at a shelter in New York. When the mother contacted a social worker to speak with her son, she was told that the child was angry and didn’t want to talk because he believed his mother had abandoned him.

Miriam, from Guatemala, recounts her separation from her child at the border [File: Matt York/AP Photo] 
Miriam, from Guatemala, recounts her separation from her child at the border [File: Matt York/AP Photo] 

The mother was one of five parents who described their ordeals to reporters in El Paso. Speaking Spanish and all wearing ankle bracelets, the parents said they have not been told when they will see their sons and daughters again.

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 2,300 children were separated from their migrant parents from the time the administration adopted the zero-tolerance policy until June 9, officials have said.

McAleenan said that 538 children that had been separated since May had been reunited with their families. The administration has said it has created a task force to work on reuniting families, but it remains unclear how long the process may take, and there have been reports of families still unsure where exactly their children are located.

‘Dumb, stupid decision’

US defence officials said the administration had chosen two military bases in Texas to house arrested migrants. An official says Fort Bliss will house families and Goodfellow Air Force Base will house hold unaccompanied children. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about a pending announcement. 


The temporary shelter at Tornillo was close to its 360-person capacity. Reporters were allowed Monday to briefly visit the shelter, where more than 320 children ages 13 to 17 are being held in air conditioned tents.

About half were from Guatemala, and 23 of the children had been separated from adults who accompanied them across the border.

Reporters were not allowed to enter any tents holding children. Two girls who stopped briefly in front of reporters said that they were doing well.

A senior manager, who said he was speaking in an individual capacity, told reporters who were touring the Tornillo facility that the family separations were a “dumb, stupid decision”.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies