RENO, Nevada — While hundreds of protesters rallied outside, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s immigration policies Monday in a speech, calling on Congress to act and asserting that many children were brought to the border by violent gang members.
Speaking at a school-safety conference in Nevada, Sessions said the crisis at the border is a “difficult and frustrating situation” that requires Congress to act.
“Children have indeed borne much of the burden of our broken immigration system,” he told the National Association of School Resource Officers in Reno.
Sessions continued: “Get this. More than 80 percent of the children crossing our borders are coming by themselves, without parents or guardians, often sent with a paid smuggler. We can only guess how many never make it to our border during that dangerous journey. Eighty percent.”
The compassionate thing to do, he said, is to protect children from violence and drugs, put criminals in jail and secure borders. He called the alternative, having open borders, “both radical and dangerous.”
He said five children had been found at the border carrying a combined 35 pounds of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid drug blamed for an epidemic of overdose deaths nationwide.
Drug cartels, Sessions said, “take advantage of our generosity and … use children to smuggle their drugs into our country as well.”
Just outside the hotel-casino where he spoke, more than 200 protesters opposed to the administration’s immigration policies blocked a busy road. The coalition of civil rights, religious and union activists carried signs and drums and were joined by a mariachi band. Some sat in a busy roadway for while police diverted traffic around them.
The protesters chanted, “Jeff Sessions, you can’t hide. Reno sees your ugly side!” Several carried signs that read “Children are not political” and “Impeach the mad king.”
At least a half-dozen people wearing red arm bands said they intended to get arrested.
The Rev. Karen Foster of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship said American children are taught to pledge allegiance to the flag “with liberty and justice for all.” She said “there is no justice for thousands of children locked in cages” at the border.
No arrests were immediately reported.
Nearly two dozen Nevada groups tried unsuccessfully last week to persuade the national school law enforcement group hosting the conference to withdraw its invitation to Sessions.
Meanwhile, a congressman said he was turned away from trying to meet with detainees from the southern border crisis because of a chicken pox outbreak at a federal prison in Tacoma, Washington.
Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer went to the Northwest Detention Center on Saturday after hearing that a number of migrants who were separated from their children had been transferred there from another federal prison in the area.
Kilmer told the Tacoma News Tribune that he had tours scheduled at both facilities, but they were canceled due to protest-related safety concerns.
When the congressman tried to visit three detainees during regularly scheduled visiting hours on Saturday, he was told that they were all quarantined due to chicken pox exposure.
Officials have said as many as 2,300 children had been separated from the time the policy began until June 9.
The exact process to reunite families has been unclear because migrants are first stopped by Customs and Border Patrol, with children taken into custody by the Department of Health and Human Services and adults detained through Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. Children have been sent to far-flung shelters around the country, raising alarm that parents might never know where their children can be found.
As part of the effort, ICE officials have posted notices in all its facilities advising detained parents who are trying to find or communicate with their children to call a hotline.
A parent or guardian trying to determine if a child is in the custody of HHS should contact the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center at 1-800-203-7001, or via email at information@ORRNCC.com. Information will be collected and sent to an HHS-funded facility where a minor is located.
But it’s unclear whether detained parents have access to computers to send an email, or how their phone systems work to call out. Attorneys at the border have said they have been frantically trying to locate information about the children on behalf of their clients.
The administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” of criminally prosecuting anyone caught illegally crossing the border remains in effect, officials have said, despite confusion on the ground on how to carry out Trump’s order.
Justice Department officials asked a federal judge to amend a class-action settlement that governs how children are treated in immigration custody. Right now, children can only be detained with their families for 20 days. Trump officials are seeking to detain them together indefinitely as their cases progress. Advocates say family detention does not solve the problem.