WASHINGTON — Parents and children caught crossing the Mexican border into the United States illegally generally can remain together, the Homeland Security Department said Wednesday, in a partial reversal of previous comments.
Secretary John Kelly told a Senate panel that families would not be separated unless the “situation at the time requires it.” He gave as possible examples if the mother is sick or addicted to drugs. But he said separation would not be routine.
Kelly’s comment to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Oversight committee contrasted with earlier pronouncements that his agency was considering separation as a deterrent to would-be border crossers, mostly from Central America.
In written testimony, Kelly said about 1,100 people traveling as families were caught trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States illegally last month.
Immigrant families and children traveling alone have accounted for hundreds of thousands of arrests at the border in recent years, at times overwhelming federal authorities.
Kelly said he has not issued a written directive outlining the policy to border agents, but has told employees that he must approve any such separations. In a somewhat tense back and forth with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Kelly said border agents don’t need a written policy because he’s given the order verbally.
Kelly also told lawmakers that a sharp decline in people crossing the southern border illegally was due in part to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and widely publicized arrests of immigrants living in the United States illegally. Smugglers have also raised prices to bring would-be immigrants from Central America through Mexico and to the border, he said.
Kelly also took some credit for himself, saying that his direct plea to government officials in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala along with conversations with church leaders and others in the region have helped curb the number of people trying to sneak into the United States.
In written testimony, Kelly told the Senate panel that fewer than 12,500 people were caught trying to enter the United States illegally across the Mexican border in March. It was the second straight decline in arrests at the border, a likely signal that fewer people are trying to come into the United States illegally, and the fewest arrests in a month in at least the last 17 years.
Kelly said that decline in the number of people trying to enter the United States illegally won’t continue unless his agency gets the resources needed to secure the border.
“It won’t last . . . unless we do something, again, to secure the border,” Kelly said. “The wall. A physical barrier. All we know is that physical barriers do work if they are put in the right places.”
Kelly said the wall won’t be from “sea to shining sea,” but in places where border agents say it would be most effective.
In response to a question from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kelly said the wall could extend beyond a physical barrier and include a mix of technology including drones.
The prospects for that wall and billions of dollars to pay for it appear dim this year, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., made clear Wednesday morning.
“The majority of Senate . . . is not going to sign a blank check for a wall we know is never going to be built,” McCaskill said.