“Separation at the ports of entry is very rare,” said Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd C. Owen of the Border Patrol’s Office of Field Operations. “We are very judicious about the family unit.”
Owen said, however, that U.S. officials have been struggling to process asylum seekers because of a lack of temporary holding space at the nation’s 328 ports of entry. He also said the agency has been working with Mexican counterparts to hold families seeking asylum at shelters in Mexico instead of letting them wait on border bridges where they would be “exposed to the elements.”
The numbers are the first the agency has released concerning family separations at legal ports amid the Trump administration’s enforcement of its “zero-tolerance” policy.
By contrast, more than 2,000 children were taken from parents who crossed the border illegally since the administration began enforcing its new policy in early May. Under the zero-tolerance policy, officials said they would charge all adults who crossed the border illegally with misdemeanors. Because children can’t be placed in adult jails, the criminal charges became grounds for splitting up the families.
The agents’ statements about the rarity of separations of families entering at legal ports of entry conflict with news reports and findings by a federal judge who has ordered the federal government to reunite all children younger than 5 with their families by Tuesday.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw of San Diego wrote that there had been a “casual, if not deliberate, separation of families that lawfully present at the port of entry, not just those who cross into the country illegally.”
The Times reported earlier this month on a number of cases since last year in which families were separated after asking for asylum at a port of entry. The separations happened even when asylum seekers carried records, such as birth certificates or hospital documents, listing them as the parents of their children, according to interviews and court records.
At the time, border officials told The Times the agency did not have data showing how often such separations occur.
Some of the cases reviewed by The Times happened in the days after the families presented themselves at a port of entry, when they had been transferred to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those cases would not necessarily be counted in the statistics that the Border Patrol released Monday.
Owen said family separation has rarely been the practice with asylum seekers at ports of entry. If asylum seekers have been turned away, he said, it has been because of a lack of resources. The challenges have been compounded by 1,300 vacancies across the agency and efforts to curb the flow of meth, heroin and opioids, he said.
Despite the administration’s strict but changing immigration policies, families have continued to come across the border. The number of families crossing at ports of entry, primarily the southern border bridges, decreased from 35,476 in 2016 to 29,377 last year only to spike again this year, 37,397 as of June.
Owen said roughly 532,000 people and 208,000 vehicles cross into the U.S daily. The two busiest ports are in Tijuana and San Ysidro.
Customs officials have been stationed at the “limit lines” at entry points in recent months, preventing asylum seekers from entering the country, intermittently halting the processing of asylum seekers at border bridges at times in recent weeks.
Owen said he could not provide an estimate as to how long it takes to process families. “We try to get them out as quickly as we can,” he said.
(Staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.)
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