“If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” Sessions said, echoing some of the remarks he made in May when the Justice Department announced that it would begin to prosecuting every person who crossed the border unlawfully, including many seeking asylum. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity.”
The separation of children from their parents is one of the policy’s outcomes, though President Trump has attempted to blame Democrats for the issue after a slew of outrage and negative reactions in recent weeks. Previously, most families arrested after crossing the border have been released for civil deportation hearings, but because children are not allowed in criminal jails, the new policy is likely to result in a significant uptick in separations.
“I don’t think children should be separated from biological parents at any age, but especially if they’re infants and toddlers,” Hewitt, who is also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, told Sessions. “I think it’s traumatic and terribly difficult on the child.”
Sessions tried to draw a parallel to how the legal system dealt with American citizens.
“And every time somebody, Hugh, gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children,” Sessions said.
Children whose parents are arrested by immigration officials are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which attempts to place them with other relatives or foster parents. The agency’s Administration for Children and Families is caring for more than 11,000 unaccompanied children at the moment, and it is averaging about 45 days to place children, a spokesman told NBC. The news outlet reported that a backlog that has developed at the HHS since the new policy was implemented has kept hundreds of children, nearly half of them under the age of 12, in custody at U.S. border stations for more than the limit of 72 hours.
When questioned by Hewitt, Sessions admitted that he had not visited any of the facilities where the children are housed.
“But I believe for the most part they’re well taken care of,” he said. “We need to get this border under control.”
Hewitt continued to pepper him with questions, asking the attorney general if he could imagine his grandchildren being separated from their parents, if the children had adequate access to legal representation, and if there was a moral right for potential asylum seekers and refugees to be able to navigate the legal system.
“No, I don’t think it’s a moral right, Hugh,” Sessions said. “If you come to the country, you should come through, first, through the port of entry and make a claim of asylum if you think you have a legitimate asylum claim. You shouldn’t try to get across the border at some desert site, some remote site unlawfully and expect not to be promptly deported. We’ve caught, over the years, millions of people, and they’ve been promptly deported. They don’t get trial in federal court.”
Sessions denied that the separation of children from their parents was the goal of the policy. In April, senior immigration officials said that filing criminal charges against migrants, including parents with their children, would be the “most effective” way to stanch illegal border crossings. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly called family separation a “tough deterrent” shortly after the new policy was announced.
Stories of the separations have inflamed immigrant and civil rights groups and many critics on the left.
“This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this civil rights work,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrants’ rights project, said on MSNBC recently. “I am talking to these mothers and they are describing their kids screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy, don’t let them take me away!’ … The medical evidence is overwhelming that we may be doing permanent trauma to these kids, and yet the government is finding every way they can to try and justify it.”
The ACLU is suing the government on claims that the Trump administration has been illegally locking up asylum seekers.
Maria Sacchetti and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.