WASHINGTON — In an abrupt reversal, the Trump administration has agreed to release some undocumented immigrant families, with electronic ankle braces monitoring parents, adopting what President Donald Trump has derisively referred to as a “catch-and-release” policy.
Dating to his days on the campaign trail, Trump has blamed the Obama administration catch-and-release policy for violence and other crimes among illegal immigrants – and vowed to end it.
The government’s move, announced Tuesday night, came amid mounting public outcry, protests and after two federal judges in sharply worded decisions reined in considerably federal detentions and separations of families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border into America illegally.
Matthew Albence, executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday night that the families will be “released into the community,” with parents wearing electronic ankle-monitoring devices.
Albence said the Trump administration was moving quickly to reunite children under 5 with undocumented immigrant parents from whom the government separated them. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego had ordered the government earlier Tuesday to meet a previous court-imposed deadline to release the young children by day’s end.
“Parents with children under the age of 5 are being reunited with their children and then released and enrolled into an alternative detention program,” Albence said. “We will continue to reunite those cases that are cleared by [the Homeland Security Department] as quickly as possible.”
The federal government acknowledged Tuesday that it had reunited only four families and planned to reunite 24 more by the end of the day – of the 102 Sabraw ordered the government to release by day’s end Tuesday.
Two weeks ago, Sabrow granted an American Civil Liberties Union request for a preliminary injunction in a class-action suit, ordering the Trump administration to reunite by July 26 as many as 2,900 other children nationwide whom the government separated from their immigrant parents.
In response to Sabrow’s order, Albence said the Trump administration “is reunifying parents in the agency’s custody who were separated from their children at the border” except when the Health and Human Services Department finds a “parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child, or where the parent declines to be reunited with the child.”
On Monday, in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee rejected the Justice Department’s request to cast aside more than two decades’ of standing precedent and lift a requirement that limits detention of immigrant children to 20 days. That mandate came in the 1997 settlement of a lawsuit, Flores v. Reno, in which a 15-year-old girl from El Salvador illegally crossed the border in 1985, unaccompanied by an adult.
“Defendants seek to light a match to the Flores Agreement and ask this Court to upend the parties’ agreement by judicial fiat,” Gee wrote. “It is apparent that Defendants’ Application is a cynical attempt…to shift responsibility to the Judiciary for over 20 years of Congressional inaction and ill-considered Executive action that have led to the current stalemate.”
Gee’s order called the Justice Department request “procedurally improper and wholly without merit.”
In a statement, the Justice Department said: “We disagree with the court’s ruling declining to amend the Flores Agreement to recognize the current crisis of families making the dangerous and unlawful journey across our southern border.”
The department did not comment on whether it plans to appeal.
As of late Tuesday night, the Justice Department had not publicly indicated any shift from the “zero-tolerance” policy imposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, in which the government seeks to prosecute all those who cross the southwestern border illegally.
Caving to international outrage and stiff opposition from most Americans, as well as congressional Democrats and many Republicans, Trump signed a June 20 executive order that he said would halt the family separations.
Also in April, Trump had sent the Homeland Security Department a memo on “ending catch and release,” in which he wrote: “Human smuggling operations, smuggling of drugs and other contraband, and entry of gang members and other criminals at the border of the United States threaten our national security and public safety.“
Tuesday morning, Trump told reporters in Washington his “solution” for solving the border crisis: “Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally. We want borders where borders mean something. Without borders, you do not have a country.”