Six weeks after Jeff Sessions warned that immigrant parents would be separated from their children if they cross into the US illegally because of the Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" policy, the attorney general contended that was never what officials intended.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Thursday, the head of the Justice Department defended the administration's decision to separate more than 2,300 children from their parents since the beginning of May.
"The American people don't like the idea that we're separating families," Sessions said, acknowledging that the hardline policy had backfired. "We never really intended to do that."
The attorney general, however, explicitly stated May 7 that immigration authorities would remove children from their parents if they are caught entering the country "unlawfully."
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law," he said while announcing the government's newly intensified immigration rules.
In an interview with Fox News earlier this week, Sessions was specifically asked if the administration's new zero tolerance policy was intended to serve as a deterrent to immigrants considering crossing the border illegally.
“Are you trying to deter people from bringing children or minors across this dangerous journey, is that part of what the separation is about?” asked Laura Ingraham.
“I see the fact that no one was being prosecuted for this as a factor in a five-fold increase in four years in this kind of illegal immigration,” Sessions said. “So, yes, hopefully, people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry."
In the interview Thursday, Sessions backtracked on his previous remarks, claiming that officials only wanted to punish adults for bringing children across the border and ensure they are "charged with the crime they committed instead of giving that special group of adults immunity from prosecution."
Sessions also said he supported the president's executive order to end the separation of families at the border, despite it reversing the very policy he championed last month.
"I think it's the right thing," he said. "We are working our way through it and trying to do it in the most compassionate way possible."
Asked about Sessions' comments Thursday, a Justice Department spokesperson insisted he had been truthful all along.
"The AG has been clear: We do not want to separate families," said Sarah Isgur Flores. "He has also been clear when he has urged people repeatedly to go to any port of entry to claim asylum instead of risking the dangers of crossing the border illegally and being prosecuted."
Sessions' remarks come amid a flurry of reports documenting the distressed state of children, some as young as babies, being housed in various government facilities and tents. Photos showing children inside cages and behind metal wires caused an uproar from lawmakers, faith groups, and international rights organizations.
Asked about the "optics" of the Trump administration's hardline policy, Sessions conceded, "it hasn't been good."