The US is considering splitting children up from parents who are caught trying to enter the country illegally. Tens of thousands of families from Central America have been detained at the Mexican border in recent years.
US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told broadcaster CNN the plan would be part of a broader effort to discourage families from taking the dangerous route to the US border.
"I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network ... going through Mexico," Kelly said.
Under current rules, families are detained at the border before being released into the United States to wait for an immigration judge to decide their fate. Kelly said a new initiative could instead see children being turned over to the Health and Human Services department, where they could be put in foster care or linked up with relatives in the US.
"In order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that," he said. "They will be well-cared for as we deal with their parents."
Central Americans fleeing violence
Homeland Security officials have been struggling to curb the flow of children and families at the Mexican border since 2014, when there was a huge spike in attempted crossings by people fleeing violence in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
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In response, the Obama administration opened multiple detention centers to house families while judges processed their cases. But a federal court in California later ruled that the practice violated a long-standing agreement that bars the government from detaining children in a jail-like setting, even if they are with their parents. The decision prompted the government to start releasing families into the US.
Leon Fresco, a former Justice Department official, said the Obama administration had also been considering separating children from parents since that court ruling.
Tough on border security
Border security and immigration were major issues in President Donald Trump's election campaign last year. He has pledged to build a "great big wall" on the border with Mexico and launched sweeps across the country to round up undocumented immigrants.
On Monday, Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. It freezes refugee admissions for 120 days and halts new visas for Syrians, Iranians, Libyans, Somalis, Yemenis and Sudanese citizens for 90 days.
nm/tj (AP, AFP, dpa)