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Nearly 2,000 kids separated from parents in six-week period

Trump administration officials have separated 1,995 minors from parents or guardians in a six week period, a Department of Homeland Security official said Friday. 

From April 19 through May 31, officials removed minor children from 1,940 adults along the U.S.-Mexico border, a DHS official told reporters during a telephone briefing. 

The numbers came as fury over the policy has grown, in which prosecutors for the Justice Department pursue parents for illegal entry under a "zero tolerance" program through Operation Streamline. Under Streamline, around 70 immigrants are prosecuted per day, four to five days a week.

While parents face federal prison terms of 30 to 180 days, their children are sent through a gantlet of federal agencies before landing with the Office of Refuge Resettlement, which has 100 shelters in 17 states, including one in Tucson. 

On Thursday, more than 400 people decried the policy in front of the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse in downtown Tucson as part of a larger nationwide protest against the policy. 

Though the policy was originally suggested by White House Chief of Staff James Kelly while he was still the Homeland Security Secretary, and implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for the policy, and instead has claimed that it's because of "Democrats' law." 

"I hate the children being taken away, that's the Democrats' law," he said on Thursday. "I want the laws to be beautiful and humane." 

DHS and DOJ officials declined to comment by name during the phone briefing, but made sure to criticize the coverage of the policy, arguing that they were "anecdotal" and "exaggerated" by opponents of the administration's policy. 

Opponents want to "give families a free pass," said one official, echoing language used by DHS Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen when she visited Nogales last month. "They want illegal aliens to get better rights than U.S. citizens have," he said, arguing immigrant parents have "committed a crime" and should "face the consequences." 

Instead, officials would not "exempt entire categories from the consequences of their illegal actions," he said. This gives officials three options, he said. "Don't enforce the law," so that parents have a "get out of jail free card," or "detain parents and children together for the 20 days we're allowed to," or keep children in a "criminal detention center, a jail, while they're prosecuted." 

As a result of the current law, officials have "no choice" but to separate children from parents facing criminal charges, he said. 

While officials have shied away from saying the program is designed to deter families from crossing into the United States, the official said that there's "very clearly a straight cause and effect on this," as the number of unaccompanied minors and family unit coming has "grown dramatically, because of the policies of not prosecuting families." 

"There’s a very clear line. We have no choice," he said. 

Previous administrations have allowed prosecutors to release parents traveling with children under a range of programs often known as alternatives to detention while they awaited their deportation hearings, often sending parents and children to their ultimate destinations in the United States with "notice to appear" documents in hand. 

A program designed to help this was shuttered in April 2017 when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement closed the family case management program, which served asylum-seekers in dozens of cities, and under which 99 percent of families in the program attended their court hearings and ICE check-ins." 

On Wednesday, during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger suggested that Catholics involved in the administration's policy could face "canonical penalties" under church law. 

In a statement from the group's president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo wrote "families are the foundational element our society" and that separating "babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A woman stands in front of the U.S. District courthouse in Tucson during a protest on Thursday against the separation of immigrant families as part of a 'zero tolerance' policy implemented by the Trump administration