Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the National Sheriffs Association Annual Conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans on June 18, 2018. Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI | License Photo
June 30 (UPI) -- In response to a federal court order, the Trump administration announced a new policy to detain migrant children with their parents for more than 20 days.
Officials have placed blame for family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border on a decades-old court settlement, known as the Flores agreement, which prevents children from being held in federal detention facilities for more than 20 days, NPR News reported.
But the Justice Department now argues that since a federal judge has barred separations, the government can detain families together until their hearings have concluded. The department said in a court filing "the Flores Agreement permits the Government to detain families together," given the nationwide ban on family separation.
The Justice Department announced the new policy that allows children to be held for longer than 20 days in a notice of compliance Friday that responded to a California federal judge's order earlier this week. The judge's order Tuesday said immigrant children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexican border must be reunited within 30 days -- and children under 5 years old within 14 days.
Former Department of Justice immigration lawyer Leon Fresco told Axios the policy poses a new decision migrant parents must make: let their children be detained for longer or let the Department of Health and Human Services take them into custody.
Crossing the border without legal documentation is a misdemeanor under federal law and a felony for those who have previously been deported. Under the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy announced in April, both are prosecuted, resulting in a sharp rise in separations. Former President Barack Obama's administration prioritized the deportation of felons.
Approximately 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their parents since April, which has prompted a national outcry. Trump signed an executive order last week for families to be detained together.
On Monday, Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan temporarily stopped referring families to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution pending an agreement on how parents could be prosecuted without being separated from their children. Families were instead released and ordered to return for their court dates, as there was a lack of available holding spaces.
More tents housing migrant families will be located on a pair of Texas military bases after construction begins in early July.