Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen plan to meet with Central American leaders in Guatemala on Thursday to discuss the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement efforts, said an aide to the vice president.
The U.S. initiated the meeting with the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the official said. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended far more citizens of those three countries than any other illegally crossing the border last year.
Trump stirred an international furor by ordering children to be separated from their parents when caught illegally crossing the border. He reversed course last week and issued an order to halt the practice. The president nonetheless has promised to press forward with tougher border enforcement and maintain a “zero tolerance” policy prosecuting everyone apprehended illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump administration officials concluded the vice president should confer with regional leaders on immigration because of the current controversy over U.S. enforcement, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing an event ahead of its official announcement. Pence is currently on a previously planned trip through Latin America.
The Border Patrol apprehended about 70,000 families and nearly 48,000 unaccompanied children from the three countries after they crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. in the 2017 federal fiscal year. By comparison, the patrol apprehended about 3,500 families and 12,000 unaccompanied children from Mexico.
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, added to confusion on Monday by announcing that his agency has halted criminal prosecutions of adults who illegally cross the border with children. He told reporters at a detention center in McAllen, Texas, that the move was in response to Trump’s executive order last week ending family separations, according to The Associated Press.
McAleenan said the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings remains in effect but he was unable to refer parents for prosecution without separating them from their children. He said the agency is working on a plan to resume criminal referrals.
Earlier Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also told an audience in Reno, Nev., that the Justice Department would maintain Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all those who cross illegally. To do otherwise, Sessions said, “would encourage more adults to bring more children illegally on a dangerous journey that puts these children at great risk.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said McAleenan’s halt to referrals is “a temporary solution” that “isn’t going to last.” She called on Congress to “fix” the immigration system.
“We’re not changing the policy. We’re simply out of resources,” she added.
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