People gather outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on June 18 to protest the practice of separating families at the southern U.S. border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was addressing the National Sheriffs’ Association at the convention center. (Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune/AP)

Immigration protesters gathered on Monday outside the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions continued to defend the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration enforcement measures during an address at the National Sheriffs’ Association convention.

“There is an important conversation occurring in this country about whether we want to be a country with laws or whether we want to be a country without borders,” Sessions said, turning to the controversy consuming the public discourse toward the end of his 30-minute speech.

News of parents being separated from their children at the border has shocked the country in recent days. The new practice requires criminal prosecution of any migrant family entering the country without going through the border-inspection process. These illegal-entry prosecutions create the justification for the federal government to take parents into custody and quickly turn their children over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We can’t have a society where people commit crimes all over the place and nothing happens,” said Sessions, who was awarded the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “They tried that in the ’60s.”

According to Sessions, policies of the past eight years led law enforcement to begin arresting people who crossed the border illegally, yet gave effective immunity from prosecution to anyone who also brought a child. “Word got out about this loophole and the results were predictable: The number of aliens illegally crossing with children went from 14,000 to 75,000 in just four years. A fivefold increase,” Sessions said.

Sessions said that this could not continue, in part, because of the “enormous cost” incurred by the government and the “enormous burden” on law enforcement, schools and hospitals.

As Sessions defended his “zero-tolerance” policy, the chanting group outside the NOLA convention center grew. Demonstrators filled the sidewalks and blocked the streets. One woman was struck by a vehicle, and five people were arrested, according to WWL-TV, a local CBS affiliate. Protesters demanded that families be kept together and held signs: “Immigration detention centers are concentration camps for kids” and “Cage Jeff Sessions.” Some demonstrators, who came close to fighting local law enforcement, as seen in a video published by WWL, pushed against police and deputies guarding the building, bearing a banner that read, “Criminalizing our community,” according to one video. Other people displayed posters that read: “Imagine your children in a cage” and “Love has no border.”

Although the federal government, according to Sessions, does not want to separate parents from their children, it does not want adults to bring children into the country unlawfully or place those children at risk, either. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have also crossed the borders, which, according to Sessions, has led to the resurgence of the MS-13 gang.

President Trump wants to bring down crime and make this country safer, said Sessions, who says that’s what he’s doing.

“If we build a wall, if we pass a legislation, if we close a loophole, we won’t face these terrible choices,” he said, adding that Trump will not allow this lawlessness to continue.

Read more:

‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart

‘America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter for migrant children

‘Disturbing’ video shows Border Patrol strike tribe member with SUV, drive away