The Trump administration on Tuesday shifted away from its “zero-tolerance” policy of detaining all immigrants who cross into the country illegally as it worked to reunite families to satisfy a court order.
Instead of separating immigrant children from adults or detaining them together, administration officials said they would largely release families with ankle monitoring on the adults.
The officials also acknowledged that they expected to reunite just 38 of 102 children under the age of 5 with their families by the end of Tuesday, the deadline a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego had imposed.
“Parents with children under the age of five are being reunited with their children and then released and enrolled into an alternative detention program, meaning that they will be placed on an ankle bracelet and released into the community,” Matt Albence, the executive associated director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon.
A senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services said the agency had determined that 14 of the 102 children under the age of 5 are ineligible for reunification because they either had parents with serious criminal histories or were determined to be unrelated to the child in question after DNA testing.
In one case, there was credible evidence of child abuse that prevented them from returning the child to the parent, the official said.
When asked about the missed deadline to reunite immigrant families, President Trump on Tuesday simply called on immigrants to stop coming to the country illegally.
“Tell people not to come to our country illegally,” he said. “That’s the solution. Don’t come illegally. Come like other people do—come legally.”
He called the attacks ICE is enduring from liberal lawmakers and protesters “a disgrace.”
“The people fighting ICE. It’s a disgrace,” he said. “These people go into harm’s way. There is nobody under greater danger than the people from ICE. What they do to MS-13, and everything else.”
The administration’s decision to pull back from its policy of detaining all immigrants who cross in the country illegally comes after a federal judge in Los Angeles on Monday denied a request by the Justice Department to hold the immigrant families in custody indefinitely.
Justice Department lawyers had asked the court to modify a 1997 settlement preventing U.S. authorities from holding immigrant minors for more than 20 days, which is not long enough for immigration judges to hear their cases.
Albence said immigration authorities would use the ankle bracelets “in general” but stressed they would evaluate each family on a case-by-case basis to determine what is appropriate. He said the ankle bracelet is “a tool that we use to encourage compliance” so that parents appear for immigration hearings.
President Trump and top administration immigration officials have repeatedly derided the policy of distributing ankle bracelets to immigrants apprehended at the border and then releasing them and telling them to appear at a later court date for their immigration hearing as “catch and release.”
Trump has referred to “catch-and-release” as a Democratic policy, but both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush used it to handle sharp surges of illegal immigrants entering the United States when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not have enough facilities to house all the immigrants being apprehended.