During an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted that the Trump administration was separating immigrant infants and toddlers from their families at the southern U.S. border, claiming that it was their parents’ fault for bringing them to the United States illegally.
“Most are not infants. Most are teenagers, although we do have a number of younger ones now, more than we’ve seen recently,” Sessions said, referring to the scores of children and teens being separated from their families while attempting the cross the border. “They are maintained in a very safe environment not by the law enforcement team at Homeland Security, but put with Health and Human Services. And they are kept close by, and if the person pleads guilty, they would be deported promptly, and they can take their children with them.”
Hewitt argued that the idea of infants and toddlers being taken from their parents was “disturb[ing].”
“I’m disturbed by this. I don’t think children should be separated from biological parents at any age, but especially if they’re infants and toddlers. I think it’s traumatic and terribly difficult on the child,” he said. “Is it absolutely necessary to do so? Can’t we have facilities where parents remain united with kids?”
Sessions replied, “We don’t want to do this at all. If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.”
Despite massive backlash, the Trump administration has in recent months reinforced its policy of punishing immigrant children to stop their parents from coming into the country.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security and current White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR in an interview last month that when it comes to separating families at the border, “laws are laws.” He described the policy as a “tough deterrent” for those thinking of fleeing to the United States.
Current DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen raised a similar point in March, saying during a hearing, “Our policy is if you break the law, we will prosecute you. You have an option to go to a port of entry and not illegally cross into our country.”
Nielsen added that DHS takes great care of the children and will continue to.
A recent NBC News report, however, found that there were around 500 children under DHS care that are stuck at border stations, 300 of whom have stayed there for longer than 72 hours, the time limit for immigrants of any age to be held in the government’s temporary facilities. Half of those 300 children are under the age of 12. Because these facilities are meant to be temporary, many don’t have adequate sleeping areas or showering facilities.
Sessions’ comments come two days after Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) was denied access to a detention center in Brownsville, Texas where hundreds of immigrant children are currently being held in what Merkley described as “like dog kennels.” Rather than allowing him into the facility to observe the living conditions, officials there called the police on the senator instead.