The Trump administration on Tuesday amplified its charges that Democrats are to blame for the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Senior officials said legal “loopholes” championed by Democrats have tied the hands of the border authorities struggling to prosecute attempted illegal crossings, leaving them no choice but to separate kids from parents facing criminal charges.
“The child-smuggling trade would be shut down if we could close those loopholes,” Stephen Miller, a White House senior policy adviser, told reporters on a press call designed to refute
criticisms that the administration is tearing families apart unnecessarily.
The family separations come as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prosecutes people who are caught crossing the border illegally for the first time, a crime that’s been on the books since 1986. Previous administrations had waived prosecution of first-time crossers for both practical and humanitarian reasons.
Democrats — who hammered the initial policy change when it was announced several weeks ago — are largely ignoring the recent accusations from the president, with some suggesting they’re loath to engage the charges out of a simple concern it would lend them more prominence.
“We’re just more concerned about the policies than the attacks,” a Democratic aide said Tuesday. “No one believes them.”
Immigration advocates rejected Miller’s claims, saying the administration is pushing a bogus legal argument to score political points with its conservative base.
“You also have to consider the source. You’re talking about Steve Miller, who is an anti-immigrant extremist,” said David Leopold, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Unfortunately he’s a political person but he’s definitely not a legal scholar.”
The finger-pointing comes amid the intensifying debate over the Justice Department’s new “zero tolerance” policy governing illegal border crossings, which includes prosecuting people who illegally cross the border for the first time.
DHS started referring first-time crossers to the Department of Justice in April, but Trump has instead placed blame on Democrats for the loopholes.
“Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border,” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
The tougher enforcement strategy is designed to deter would-be migrants, and the attacks on Democrats appear to be aimed at energizing the president’s conservative base over an issue that marked the cornerstone of his successful 2016 campaign.
“There is a current crisis on our borders with regard to illegal immigration,” said Jonathan Hoffman, a spokesman for DHS. “Our immigration system is clearly being gamed by those aware of loopholes.”
For the past two months, border authorities have caught over 50,000 illegal border crossers, reportedly enraging Trump. That’s a record high for the Trump administration, but it’s on par with seasonal averages seen in the later years of the Obama administration.
The administration has focused its appeal for immigration reform on those “loopholes,” which it views as bad policies that encourage migrants — particularly those from Central America — to attempt to enter the United States without prior authorization.
Administration officials pointed at a slew of anti-trafficking and migration laws and court decisions as the structural culprits for continued illegal immigration.
Hoffman listed the top loopholes as the 1997 Flores settlement agreement, a court decision that limits the amount of time children can be held in detention; the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 anti-trafficking law that’s become a target of immigration hard-liners; the Zadvydas case, which bans indefinite detention of undeportable immigrants; and the asylum system.
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