Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served under George W. Bush, says he isn’t surprised by the “kind of tragedy” happening at the southern U.S. border, where President Trump’s administration has been separating children from their families when they illegally cross it.
“It is to be expected when we’re a country that has the right to control our own borders,” Gonzales told Yahoo News Tuesday.
But he argued that children should be kept with their families — including cases when the adults are deported.
“The best policy would be for the child to be with the parents,” he said. “Parents should be with their children. Parents have responsibility to take care of their children, and so if someone is deported. the children should go with the parent. They need to be kept together. And then the parents can apply lawfully, and hopefully they will be able to return to this country with their children.”
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, enacted in April, criminally prosecutes all undocumented immigrants caught illegally crossing into the U.S. As a result, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. Today, Trump announced that this afternoon he will sign an executive order to “keep families together.” But it is not yet clear how the order will prevent families from being separated.
Gonzales, who led the Department of Justice from 2005 to 2007 under the previous Republican president, said he’d have to implement the same policy if he had been asked.
“If I was the attorney general, and this was what the president wanted, I’d have to follow what the president wanted,” he said. “So long as it’s lawful, then you carry out the objective of the White House. There’s nothing unlawful about that order.”
While there is no law that requires unauthorized immigrants to be separated from the children, Gonzales said: “Whether we have the laws or not, typically — even in the enforcement of laws that are on the books — there is discretion in the hands of the federal government.”
This discretion has changed how immigrants who unlawfully cross the U.S. border are prosecuted. Before the zero-tolerance policy, they were referred for civil deportation proceedings that did not require families to be separated. The new policy now refers illegal border crossers for federal criminal prosecution and jail. And because minors cannot be kept in federal criminal detention facilities, they are separated from their parents.
In an interview this week, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, said he hopes that immigrants crossing the border unlawfully get the message through the policy.
A father of three, Gonzales has sympathy for the children’s situation. “As Laura Bush said, it’s heartbreaking; it’s not fair to children,” says Gonzales, referring to an op-ed penned by former first lady Laura Bush and published on Father’s Day. “It’s about punishing the parents without punishing the children. And while this [policy] does punish the parents because they don’t want to be separated from the children, it also punishes the children. Let’s find a way that punishes the parent without punishing the child.”
Gonzales went on to say that “both parties are to blame” for the lack of progress on immigration reform. “I think it’s a failure of leadership in the Congress, but also I don’t think we’re getting much support from the White House in terms of being able to sit down and compromise,” he said.
Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the crisis at the border, with nonspecific reference to policies of past administrations. For example, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed by Bush in 2008, required that unaccompanied minors from countries except Mexico and Canada be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services for resettlement. Another example is the 1997 Flores Settlement, which allowed unaccompanied children caught at the border to be released to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers after no longer than 20 days in immigrant detention. None of these policies required children be separated from their parents, as Trump has falsely claimed while citing a nonexistent “horrible law.”
Gonzales said the best-case scenario for the separated families is reuniting them as quickly as possible, and then for them to make alternate arrangements if they aren’t granted permission to remain in the U.S. lawfully. “That’s harsh,” said Gonzales, “but that’s operating in a lawful way; protecting our borders in a way that’s consistent with our values of being a country of a rule of law.”
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