According to a report from The Washington Post on Thursday, some of the country's top immigration chiefs are now urging Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to begin detaining and criminally prosecuting unauthorized adult border-crossers. Or, in other words, President Donald Trump's immigration officials want to break up immigrant families, because that would be precisely the effect of launching criminal prosecutions of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the southern border of the United States.
A trio of top-level officials signed off on the suggestion in a memo obtained by The Washington Post. Specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, and Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna all reportedly signed off on the memo, illuminating just how uniformly Trump's top immigration officials want to see border-crossers criminally prosecuted.
As the report notes, this would have huge implications not just for the legal fates of the undocumented immigrants, but also for the abilities of families to stay united. The process of detaining and prosecuting adults who try to illegally cross the border would necessarily mean that their children would be taken away, being forcibly separated while their parents are jailed and prosecuted.
The ostensible justification for this proposed policy change, which would surely have a devastating effect on countless families, is that the threat of prosecution would act as a deterrent, keeping undocumented immigrants from trying to cross the border.
The memo reportedly asserts that imposing detention and criminal prosecution on immigrants caught illegally crossing the border would be the "most effective" way to reduce the number of border crossings, which rose sharply last month. The memo specifically claims that last week saw some 700 people cross the border each day, a number that is apparently not satisfactory to the heads of Trump's foremost immigration agencies.
As The Hill noted on Thursday, the typical outcome when an undocumented immigrant is caught crossing the border is that they're released pending deportation proceedings, meaning they're able to stay with their family throughout the process. If they were jailed while awaiting a deportation hearing, their family would be pulled apart, which is the practical effect of the policy change Homan, Cissna, and McAleenan are advising Nielsen to make.
Homan, in particular, has proven to be a hugely controversial figure since taking over ICE in January 2017. As the head of ICE under Trump ― who during the 2016 presidential election called for the formation of a "deportation force," a description which more or less accurately describes the agency Homan now leads ― he's presided over a spike in immigration raids and arrests, and has drawn criticism and condemnation from immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations.
It is not yet clear whether Nielsen, who has led the Department of Homeland Security since late last year, will take the advice of the trio of officials. Her path to lead the department was slightly unusual, as it was the result of Trump's original pick for the job, John Kelly, later being plucked from the job in order to serve as White House chief of staff. That left Elaine Duke as the acting secretary, but Nielsen was ultimately nominated and confirmed on Dec. 6.
Trump has long been one of the most strident and vehement voices on immigration in American politics, dating back to the very first speech of his presidential campaign, when he claimed that Mexico was sending "rapists" across the border. Total deportations were actually down in 2017 from when former President Barack Obama was in charge, but the number of ICE raids and arrests has surged.