WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime member of the Methodist Church, said Thursday that it hurts him to hear Christian leaders condemning his policy of taking children away from their parents at the border and putting them in cages in detention facilities.
“It is painful,” Sessions said in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network.
“I have critics from a lot of different areas. I think our church people are really concerned about children, that’s what I’m hearing,” he said. “I feel it. I think there’s a legitimate concern there, and I’m pleased to work with the president to address those concerns.”
Sessions is leading the charge on the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on immigration, which separates kids from their parents so the adults can be criminally prosecuted for crossing the border without documentation. The administration has separated more than 2,300 children from their parents, so far, and has no plan for reuniting them. Previously, authorities typically kept migrant families together and routed them to immigration courts.
Photos from detention facilities show kids being kept in large cages and given foil blankets. Audio from one facility, obtained by ProPublica, features small children crying out for their parents as a U.S. Border Patrol agent jokes about an “orchestra” of wailing children.
Faith leaders of all persuasions, including the leader of Sessions’ own church, have denounced the policy. When Sessions invoked the Bible to defend it last week, he drew widespread criticism from Christian leaders who described family separations as “immoral,” “disgraceful” and “deeply un-Christian.”
Amid growing public outrage, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to halt his policy of family separations. But there’s a catch: his new plan is to lock up parents and their children together, indefinitely. That conflicts with a 2015 court order that prohibits the detention of children for more than 20 days, which means lawsuits are imminent.
Sessions said Thursday that the administration hadn’t planned on taking kids away from their parents at the border.
“We never really intended to do that,” he said. “What we intended to do, was to make sure that adults who bring children into the country are charged with the crime they have committed.”
But that’s not true.
White House chief of staff John Kelly said in March that the administration was considering separating children from their parents “to deter more movement” across the border. He similarly said in May that family separations would serve as “a tough deterrent” to immigrants trying to cross the border illegally.
Steve Wagner is a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of managing children at the border. He said on Monday that the family separation policy would have “a deterrence effect.”
And, of course, Sessions himself has said the point of the family separation policy is to send a message to people trying to cross the border unlawfully. For the record, it is not illegal to cross the U.S. border if you are seeking asylum, which is what many of these families are doing.
“Are you considering this a deterrent?” Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked Sessions in a Monday interview.
“Yes,” he replied. “Hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry and not break across the border unlawfully.”