U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan has temporarily stopped referring for prosecution adults who attempt to cross the border illegally with children, he told reporters Monday.
In comments first reported by the Associated Press, McAleenan said he ordered CPB agents to stop referring parents to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution hours after President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the practice of separating families at the border.
McAleenan’s admission comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in Reno, Nev. that federal prosecution of adults who cross the border illegally would continue despite Trump’s executive order. Those prosecutions cannot occur without referrals from CBP agents.
Trump’s executive order, which prohibits the separation of children from parents awaiting prosecution for crossing the border illegally, reportedly sparked widespread confusion among Department of Homeland Security officials about how exactly to enforce it. The officials were not told about the order in advance and were unsure how to proceed with criminal prosecutions without separating families because of a 1997 consent decree which established that minors cannot be held in federal custody for longer than 20 days. In addition to the legal obstacle preventing prolonged detention of children, there are not enough shelters equipped to house families, exacerbating confusion about how exactly to comply with the order.
McAleenan said that he is working on a plan that would allow CPB to resume referring adults for prosecution, and Congressional Republicans have been working to provide a legislative fix that would allow for family detention.