McALLEN, Tex. — The nation’s top border security official said on Monday that his agency has temporarily stopped handing over migrant adults who cross the Mexican border with children to prosecutors, undercutting claims by other administration officials that “zero tolerance” for illegal immigration is still in place.
Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said he had told border agents not to refer families to the Justice Department for prosecution until the two agencies can agree on a policy that would allow parents to be prosecuted without separating them from their children.
Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for families, the immediate impact of the decision will be that many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court date at some point in the future.
The decision by Mr. McAleenan, conveyed to reporters at a detention center here, will effectively revive a “catch and release” approach used during the Obama administration for most families crossing the Mexican border illegally. President Trump has repeatedly railed against “catch and release” and blamed it for helping to invite waves of crime and violence into the United States.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later echoed Mr. McAleenan, saying that while there has been no official change in the “zero tolerance” policy, the reality is that the government does not have the ability to detain all the families coming across the border illegally.
“We’re not changing the policy. We’re simply out of resources,” Ms. Sanders said. She blamed Democrats in Congress for not changing immigration laws in ways that would keep migrant families out of the country in the first place.
But even as Mr. McAleenan and Ms. Sanders addressed the issue, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to continue enforcing Mr. Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy. Mr. Sessions told more than 1,000 school resource officers in Reno, Nev., that refusing to prosecute adults crossing illegally into the United States would be a disservice to the children they bring with them.
“The president has made this clear, we are going to prosecute those adults who came here illegally,” Mr. Sessions insisted, though he added that the government will “do everything in our power” to comply with the president’s executive order to avoid separating children from their parents.
Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have both ratcheted up their hard-line immigration rhetoric while at the same time promising to keep families together. In brief remarks at the White House on Monday, the president repeated his desire for a system that provides less due process for immigrants.
“We want a system where when people come in illegally, they have to go out — a nice simple system that works,” Mr. Trump said, mocking again the idea of hiring more immigration judges. “We want strong borders, and we want no crime.”
But even before Monday’s announcement by Mr. McAleenan, the reality on the ground appeared far less simple. Administration officials said the zero tolerance policy has been enforced in dramatically different ways, depending on whether border communities have the resources to detain and prosecute new waves of immigrants.
Where there is not enough space to detain families with children, such families are already being charged and quickly let go, with a promise to return for later court hearings.
Casa Alitas is a shelter in Tucson, Ariz., that takes in migrant families once American officials have released them into the country as their cases proceed. On Monday, Teresa Cavendish, who runs the shelter, said that government officials appear to be releasing many families into the United States together as a unit, rather than keeping them in detention — even when the families cross at unauthorized border points.
“These current families are very, very lucky,” she said.