HHS official says family separation policy will have ‘deterrence effect’

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A top Trump administration official confirmed Tuesday that family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border will serve to deter future illegal immigration.

“We expect the new policy will result in a deterrence effect,” said Steven Wagner, who is in charge of care centers for undocumented minors in federal care as the acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


The comment follows an exchange at the White House press briefing with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday where she appeared to dispute whether the administration considered family separation a deterrent strategy.

“I find that offensive. No,” she said when asked whether the administration was “intending for this [policy] to play out as it is playing out” or “intending to send a message” with it.

But the idea of using family separation as a deterrent has been floated by this administration — and previous administrations, including President Obama’s — before.

In March of 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — now the White House chief of staff — said in an interview with CNN that he was considering the idea.

“A big name of the game is deterrence,” he also told NPR last month, acknowledging specifically that separating families “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”

After backlash over the suggestion, the idea was initially abandoned as the Trump administration oversaw, in its first year, the lowest rates of illegal border crossings in recent history.

This spring, border apprehensions returned to their usual seasonal levels, prompting Attorney General Jeff Sessions to institute a zero tolerance policy on illegal border crossings.

Under the policy, all adults caught crossing illegally, regardless of whether they’re in the company of minors, are arrested, causing the separation of family units.

On the same call where Wagner talked of the deterrent effect, Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings of the Border Patrol said 2,235 family units had been caught under the new policy so far, leading to the separation of 2,342 children.

Children caught crossing unaccompanied and children “rendered unaccompanied” by separation are remanded by Homeland Security Department officials to HHS for care in temporary detention centers, placement with foster care or return to their families or legal guardians.

Wagner said HHS is still working on the process to reunite families after parents are released from jail because the zero tolerance policy is still new.

“I don’t know how many of the separated kids have been placed or reunited with parents,” said Wagner. “When we’re aware of the presence of a parent in the country, our goal is to reunite.”

Tags family separation policy Illegal immigration to the United States Jeff Sessions John Kelly Kirstjen Nielsen zero tolerance immigration policy

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