Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during a news conference in San Diego near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, May 7, 2018. The Border Patrol chief overseeing the Rio Grande Valley said the number of family separations under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy could easily double. Credit: Gregory Bull | AP

EDINBURG, Texas — As outrage mounts over the Trump administration’s separation of hundreds of immigrant children from their parents, the man overseeing that zero tolerance policy on the busiest stretch of the Southwest border said the number of families affected could double.

Manuel Padilla Jr., Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, told The Washington Post on Thursday his agents had separated 568 parents from children as young as five since the zero tolerance policy was announced April 6.

But that figure represented only half the parents who could have been prosecuted for entering the country illegally, leaving Border Patrol plenty of room to ramp up family separations.

“We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” he said. “We are not there yet, but that is our intent.”

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 kids were taken from their parents from April 19 through May 31, according to new figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

As reporters pressed the White House for a justification of the controversial policy Thursday, Padilla sat in his office 1,700 miles away, calmly providing it.

Dressed in green fatigues, the 32-year veteran of Border Patrol was unapologetic. He said years of lax enforcement had only encouraged more violators.

“This zero tolerance initiative changes that completely,” he said. “We cannot just have this surge of immigration without any consequences.”

The number of families illegally crossing remained steady in May and even rose 10 percent in the Rio Grande Valley. But Padilla said the policy needs more time to take effect.

Yet, immigrant advocates say the factors pushing many families to the U.S., like gang violence in Central America, aren’t going away.

“It doesn’t matter how cruel we become,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, a nonprofit that provides immigrant children with pro bono legal support. Families “are going to take that risk.”

Padilla is an unlikely champion of family separation. He was born and raised on the border in Nogales, Arizona. But his parents were born on the other side, in Mexico, where as a child he often visited his grandparents.

“The border back then was three strands of barbed wire,” he recalled.

Padilla, 52, first encountered the Border Patrol as a teen working the ranches in Nogales, past which border agents patrolled. He joined the Army straight out of high school with an eye on the Border Patrol, which he joined two years later.

In 2012, Padilla was put in charge of the office in Tucson, Arizona. At the time, that sector — which includes his hometown — was the busiest on the border. Under his watch, cartel activity and illegal immigration along the Arizona border declined sharply.

But activists accused him of being too aggressive. In early 2014, the ACLU filed a complaint alleging his agents had performed unconstitutional searches and used excessive force.

Around that same time, illegal border crossings shifted east as thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America began crossing the Rio Grande each month.

Padilla was put in charge of the Rio Grande Valley sector in February 2016. Unlike Arizona, there wasn’t a wall along the border. Padilla said he and his agents grew frustrated at what he called the “catch and release” of migrants who crossed the river illegally with their children.

When Trump took office, illegal immigration initially plummeted, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. In March 2017, Padilla’s agents apprehended only 646 families crossing the border. But the number began to creep back up. And by April of this year, when the Trump administration announced zero tolerance, the tally was over 6,000.

Padilla said the new policy reinvigorated the 3,000 agents under his command, who he said were “very motivated to be able to do their jobs again.”

He shrugged off criticism, including comparisons of Border Patrol facilities to concentration camps.

“Really, our mission is border security,” said Padilla, whose unit is hiring more officers. “And I think now we have a policy that supports securing our borders.”

In his Edinburg office, decorated with maps of the border and a mounted bowie knife, Padilla showed a reporter videos of fatal crashes in which smugglers tried to avoid authorities. In another video, taken just a few days before, a woman wept as she told Border Patrol agents that a smuggler had thrown her daughter off a raft as he demanded more money.

“We’ve got agents who are rescuing children right at the river, sometimes in the river,” he said. “We’ve got children who show up in extremely bad shape. We’ve got children of a tender age who’ve been assaulted by their smugglers.”

As painful as separating families might be, the aim was to stop those families from coming, thereby sparing them from smugglers, he said.

Padilla said his sector was responsible for 40 percent of all border apprehensions, so he knew the attention of the president — and much of the country — was now on his valley.

“This is what I call the last stand,” he said.

Ten miles away, in downtown McAllen, Jhonny Guevara watched his 4-year-old son play on the floor of a Catholic Charities respite center for immigrants newly released from ICE custody. A few days earlier, the 30-year-old from Honduras had crossed the Rio Grande with his son and several other families. They had turned themselves in to Border Patrol and were taken to a short-term holding facility, commonly known as a “hielera,” or ice box, for its cold temperature.

There were three other fathers with young children in his cell, Guevara recalled. But Border Patrol separated only one family. As the boy cried, his father was taken to court to be charged. Guevara was given an ankle monitor and an immigration court date, then released with his son.

Erick Jose, recuperating at the same respite center, said Border Patrol agents told him his daughter would be taken from him. The Guatemalan was so afraid that he slept with his arms and legs around the 6-year-old.

“Era una amenaza,” said Jose, 25, in Spanish. “It was a threat.”

Padilla has come under scrutiny in the wake of several stories about families being separated inside his facilities. Earlier last week, a woman claimed her child was taken as she was breastfeeding. Federal public defenders said two mothers were told their children were being taken for a bath, only to be separated. And The Post reported a Honduran man committed suicide after being separated from his 3-year-old son.

Padilla declined to comment on the suicide and said the breastfeeding story was “not true.” But he did shed some light on the family separation policy.

Within days of the attorney general’s April 6 memo, Padilla said his agents began experiencing “logistical issues” with separating very young children from their parents.

During a conference call with other Border Patrol offices, he said, the agency decided only children at least 5 years old would be separated from their parents.

Asked about reports that children as young as 18 months have been taken away, Padilla said there exceptions, such as when a parent had an “egregious criminal history.”

Padilla said some parents were being spared simply because Border Patrol, ICE and the federal court system didn’t have the capacity to prosecute everyone eligible — at least not yet.

His office is now charging more than 1,000 people a week — including those traveling without children — with illegally entering the United States, a misdemeanor. That is up five-fold from before zero tolerance, he said, but it still only represents 40 percent of those eligible.

Although some family separations occur at hieleras, most take place inside Ursula, a processing center the size of a football field in McAllen, Padilla said. It’s known as the “dog kennel” for its chainlink rooms.

Padilla said parents are given “tear cards,” or sheets, explaining they are being criminally charged.

“While this process is occurring, your child or children will be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), where your child will be held in a temporary child shelter or hosted by a foster family,” the sheets say.

Under “How do I locate my child(ren)?” the sheet lists an “ORR parent hotline.”

Padilla said some parents return from jail in time to be reunited with their children at Ursula. But he admitted kids spend just 30 hours there on average, making reunification unlikely.

Immigrant advocates say many parents spend days, if not weeks, trying to learn where their kids are being held. Even then, reunification can take months, during which children can be placed with strangers and parents can be deported.

Padilla said he wasn’t aware of any parents deported without their children. He also dismissed the idea that separation might not deter desperate families.

“Poverty is the main driver,” not gang violence, he said, adding that since October, his agents had found more than 600 cases of what he called “fraud,” including adults pretending to be a child’s parent or adults pretending to be minors themselves.

But Young, the immigrant advocate, said zero tolerance was not the solution.

“I don’t think it is accomplishing anything other than terrorizing children and their parents,” she said. “This is a legacy that is going to haunt us for a very long time.”

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