The interim head of the Department of Homeland Security asserted on Tuesday that the Trump administration wasn’t looking to revive its divisive policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, telling NBC News the controversy was “not worth it” from an enforcement standpoint.
Sitting for his first interview since DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned and President Donald Trump named him acting head of the department, Kevin McAleenan defended the policy even while pledging that the president had no interest in bringing it back.
“I think the president has been clear that family separation is not on the table," McAleenan, the former Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told NBC’s Lester Holt when asked whether he would reconsider the policy, before falling back on the administration’s defense of the issue.
“And again, this was a zero-tolerance prosecution initiative that was targeted at adults violating the law,” he said. “They were always intended to be reunited.”
The Trump administration faced widespread condemnation over the policy, which was meant to serve as a deterrent for migrants, before Trump signed an executive order ending the practice last summer, but not before separating thousands of migrant children from their parents.
Though McAleenan said the administration always planned to reunite separated families, officials struggled to meet a court-ordered deadline to do that last year. McAleenan argued that although the policy might have been useful as a deterrent, the public outcry over separations doomed it and it became more trouble than it was worth.
“So prosecuting violations of the law does have a consequence and it does deter behavior, but it did not work if you lose the public trust,” he said. He added that from “an enforcement perspective, it’s not worth it.”
McAleenan repeated Trump’s insistence that Congress strike a deal on the so-called Flores agreement, a court settlement that placed regulations on how long minors could be detained. He also called for lawmakers to amend immigration policy to allow for a more efficient immigration court system and address the enormous backlog of immigration cases.
“Really, a better system, as I’ve said many times, would allow us to detain families together during fair and expeditious immigration proceedings and getting actual immigration results from the court,” McAleenan said. “So that’s what’s missing from the current situation.”
Trump reignited the issue earlier this month afterNielsen's resignation and after pulling his nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement amid rumors he was looking to restart the policy, though he told reporters that was untrue.
But even as the president and McAleenan denied that family separations could begin again, aides have saidthe White House is considering another policy that could do just that, though it would give migrant parents the choice to be separated from their children or be detained indefinitely as a family.