Nearly 2,000 minors were separated from their parents or adult guardians who illegally crossed into the United States over a recent six-week period, officials said Friday in the most comprehensive 2018 figures provided on family separations.
Between April 19 and May 31, the 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults who were being held by US border patrol in preparation for prosecution for crossing the border illegally, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said on a call with reporters.
The detention numbers appear to have spiked after President Donald Trump's administration announced a "zero tolerance" policy on illegal border crossings earlier this year.
Amid an outcry over the detention of children -- some 1,500 boys are being held in a former Walmart supermarket in Texas -- a DHS official insisted that the minors were enjoying decent conditions.
"We have some of the highest detention standards in the world for children," he said.
Trump has claimed he hates the idea of separating children from the parents who try to enter the country, but the administration has acknowledged that crackdown on the families could serve as a deterrent.
"Right now, we are in a circumstance where either we choose to enforce the law or we choose to ignore it," a DHS official said.
"And this administration has made it clear that we are not going to ignore the law any longer."
Amid the crackdown, the detained parents are "in jail settings," the official said, awaiting adjudication and possible prosecution for crossing the border. The process can take several weeks.
"We are unable to keep families in a detention setting together for an extended period," the DHS official said, noting that nowhere else in the United States are law enforcement agencies expected to detain children with their parents.
"In no other context are we being asked to detain children with parents who are facing criminal charges."
There is no law that requires parents be separated from their children at the border. But if parents in the United States are jailed, their children are split from them because the children are not themselves charged with a crime.