Authorities abandon 'zero-tolerance' policy for border immigrant families

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McALLEN, Texas — The nation's top border security official said Monday that his agency has temporarily stopped handing over migrant adults who cross the Mexican border with children to prosecutors, undercutting claims by other administration officials that "zero tolerance" for illegal immigration is still in place.

Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said he had told border agents not to refer families to the Justice Department for prosecution until the two agencies can agree on a policy that would allow parents to be prosecuted without separating them from their children.

Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for families, the immediate impact of the decision will be that many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court date at some point in the future.

The decision by McAleenan, conveyed to reporters at a detention center here, will effectively revive a "catch and release" approach used during the Obama administration for most families crossing the Mexican border illegally. President Donald Trump has railed against "catch and release" and blamed it for helping to invite waves of crime and violence into the United States.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later echoed McAleenan, saying while there has been no official change in the "zero tolerance" policy, the reality is the government does not have the ability to detain all the families coming across the border illegally.

"We're not changing the policy. We're simply out of resources," Sanders said.

But even as McAleenan and Sanders addressed the issue, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to continue enforcing Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy. Sessions told more than 1,000 school resource officers in Reno, Nevada, that refusing to prosecute adults crossing illegally into the United States would be a disservice to the children they bring with them.

"The president has made this clear, we are going to prosecute those adults who came here illegally," Sessions insisted, though he added that the government will "do everything in our power" to comply with the president's executive order to avoid separating children from their parents.

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