More than 75 former U.S. attorneys are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop family separations, saying the decision to implement a policy that has led to more than 2,000 children taken from their parents "falls squarely on your shoulders."
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In a letter to Sessions, the bipartisan group says that under previous administrations prosecutors used their discretion to decide if people who crossed the border illegally should be charged or go through a civil process to determine if they qualify for asylum, which would allow the family unit to stay together.
Under the Trump administration's policy, they say, prosecutors are told to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally for "illegal entry," which they say forces them into a criminal process that requires children be separated, even though the crime is only a misdemeanor.
The former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, Ken Magidson, who signed the letter, wrote in an editorial Tuesday that the administration's policy is legal, but not moral, and called on Sessions to give prosecutors discretion that would allow families to stay together.
"Splitting up parents and children is too harsh a penalty for what is commonly a misdemeanor offense," Magidson wrote in an editorial in the Houston Chronicle.
The Trump administration insists that separating families is not a policy, but a requirement of enforcing the law to prosecute adults who cross the border illegally. Earlier this year Sessions announced a "zero-tolerance" policy that means all adults who cross the border illegally are being prosecuted, which means children cannot be held with adults. Previous administrations dealt with illegal entry through civil proceedings so families could be kept together, at least for a limited time.
"As former United States Attorneys, we also emphasize that the Zero Tolerance policy is a radical departure from previous Justice Department policy, and that it is dangerous, expensive, and inconsistent with the values of the institution in which we served," they wrote in the letter posted online Tuesday.
The attorneys say the law does not require the systemic separation of families and that the administration's policy has caused a "traumatic and unsustainable" situation that does not account for each family's specific circumstances.
"Under your policy, families and children are greeted with unexpected cruelty at the doorstep of the United States, instead of with relief or asylum in the greatest country in the world," the attorneys wrote in the letter, signed first by former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.
They call on Sessions to stop requiring U.S. attorneys to prosecute all immigrants and return to a policy that doesn't separate so many families.
"As former U.S. Attorneys, we know that none of these consequences?—?nor the policy itself?—?is required by law. Rather, its implementation and its execution are taking place solely at your direction, and the unfolding tragedy falls squarely on your shoulders," they wrote. "It is time for you to announce that this policy was ill-conceived and that its consequences and cost are too drastic, too inhumane, and flatly inconsistent with the mission and values of the United States Department of Justice. It is time for you to end it."
Attorneys general from 21 states also sent a letter to the Justice Department on Tuesday calling on it to end the "zero tolerance" policy, writing that they are concerned the policy violated children's civil rights.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and 11 other Republican senators also wrote to Sessions on Tuesday calling on the Justice Department to pause the practice of separating families while Congress works on a legislative fix. They said that while the crisis of family separation cases has multiple causes, the immediate cause is the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.
"Although enforcing our immigration laws is an essential responsibility of the federal government, it must be done in a way that is consistent with our values and ordinary human decency. We support the administration’s efforts to enforce our immigration laws, but we cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents," Hatch and the other Republicans wrote in the letter.