Former ICE director: Family separations 'could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans'

Former ICE director: Family separations 'could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans'
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A former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Tuesday that the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border could lead to “permanent" separations.

John Sandweg, who was acting director of the federal agency from 2013-2014, told NBC News that it can be difficult for parents to be reunited with their children when they are held in separate facilities.

“You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the U.S. that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted,” he said. 

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He added that, in some instances, adults have their cases adjudicated more quickly than children's cases, a discrepancy that he said can result in a parent being deported while their child remains in the country.

An ICE spokeswoman disputed Sandweg's claims, saying the agency works with other government offices, including the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to attempt to accommodate parents and children and reunite them.

When parents are removed without their children, ICE, ORR, and the consulates work together to coordinate the return of a child and transfer of custody to the parent or foreign government upon arrival in country, in accordance with repatriation agreements between the U.S. and other countries," Liz Johnson, ICE’s assistant director of public affairs, said in a statement.

"Unaccompanied children often are received by the country’s child welfare agency, who facilitate the reunification," she added.

Sandweg's comments come amid a growing bipartisan uproar over the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy dealing with immigrants illegally entering the country via the U.S-Mexico border.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration's policy earlier this year, saying the Department of Justice would criminally prosecute all adults attempting to illegally cross the southern border into the U.S. As a result, families who crossed together would in some cases be separated, he said at the time.

The practice of family separation has prompted outcry on both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill calling on Trump to end the policy. Some members of Congress have crafted legislation that would end the practice of separating families at the border.

Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the separation policy, despite his administration issuing the directive that led to the practice. On Monday, he doubled down, saying the U.S. “will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility.”

Administration officials have said only Congress can fix the issue by passing immigration reform.

Updated at 5 p.m.