McALLEN, Texas — 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 2,300 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.
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.
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.
Addressing reporters in Texas, McAleenan said he stopped sending cases of parents charged with illegally entering the country to prosecutors "within hours" after President 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.
Speaking at a school-safety conference in Reno, Sessions cast the children as victims of a broken immigration system and urged Congress to act.
While hundreds of protesters rallied outside a hotel-casino, the attorney general said more than 80 percent of children crossing the border arrive alone, without parents or guardians, and are "often sent with a paid smuggler. We can only guess how many never make it to our border during that dangerous journey."
He claimed the MS-13 gang "is recruiting children who were sent here as unaccompanied minors, and some are brought to help replenish the gang. And they are terrorizing immigrant schools and communities from Los Angeles to Louisville to Long Island to Boston. They are able to do so because we do not have a secure southwest border."
He said five children had been found at the border carrying a combined 35 pounds of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid drug blamed for an epidemic of overdose deaths nationwide.
Just outside the building where Sessions spoke, more than 200 protesters opposed to the administration's immigration policies blocked a busy road. The coalition of civil rights, religious and union activists carried signs and drums and were joined by a mariachi band. Some sat in a busy roadway for while police diverted traffic around them.
No arrests were reported.
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.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was among those who toured a shelter at the Tornillo border crossing in West Texas.
"I think there is very, very powerful consensus on both sides of the aisle that reunification should be done immediately," Blumenthal said. "These stories are gut-wrenching and heartbreaking of children 6 and 7 years old, separated from their parents, not know where they are and the parents not knowing where their children are."
U.S. defense officials said the administration had chosen two military bases in Texas to house detained migrants. The officials identified the bases as Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about a pending announcement.
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.
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. A facility administrator told reporters that the main complaint he hears from children on site is that the tents get too cold sometimes.
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.
The exact process to reunite families has been unclear because migrants are first stopped by Customs and Border Protection. Then children are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, while adults are detained through Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
Justice Department officials have asked a federal judge to amend a class-action settlement that governs how children are treated in immigration custody. Right now, children can only be detained with their families for 20 days. Trump administration officials are seeking to detain them together indefinitely as their cases progress.