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Why Trump's executive order "hasn't solved" issue of family separation

Fran Townsend on family separation
Why Trump executive order "hasn't solved" issue of family separation 03:06

In a rare public reversal, President Trump said the U.S. will allow undocumented families to stay together, even with his "zero tolerance" border policy still in place. The president signed an executive order temporarily ending the separation of children from their parents who cross the border illegally.

But according to CBS News senior national security analyst Fran Townsend, the executive order "hasn't solved" the issue for the long-term. That's because of the Flores Agreement, a 1997 government settlement that says children cannot be detained in federal facilities for more than 20 days. If children stay with parents detained under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, they will run up against that time limit long before the cases are resolved.

"So we've really kicked the can down the road and put, I think from the White House's perspective, more pressure on Congress. If you don't solve this in 20 days, we're going to be right back where we started," Townsend said Thursday on "CBS This Morning."

What's next for separated families after Trump's executive order? 03:48

Townsend, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush, said prior administrations did not criminally prosecute all illegal border crossing cases, as the "zero tolerance" policy now states.

"I was a prosecutor for many years, and you have prosecutorial discretion to allow the prosecutor to say that it would be an injustice if we really prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And these are misdemeanors," Townsend said. "The U.S. attorneys along the southwest border don't typically take misdemeanors. They don't have those kind of resources."

It's not clear if or when the more than 2,300 children already separated from their parents will be reunited. Minors removed from parents have been sent as far away as New York. The government keeps track of the children with a unique identifier called an "alien number." Some activists say they've had trouble tracking down children's locations. An official from the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday there would be no special efforts to reunite children already separated. In a clarifying statement issued later, a spokesman said they're "awaiting further guidance" and added "reunification is always the ultimate goal."

Townsend said there are still questions left unanswered.

"What we don't know is what is the process for reunification? What efforts are made to ensure that there is consistent and persistent contact between the child and the parent who is in custody facing prosecution?" she asked.

At the end of the 20 days, Townsend said "either you choose to have the 'zero tolerance' policy" or "they agree to immediate deportation, in which case everybody would be sent back."

Townsend said it's not expected that Mr. Trump will change his policy.

"You're either going to prosecute them and separate them, or you're not, and then you're returned to the idea of what the president calls 'catch-and-release.' You either release them into the United States, which President Trump is not going to do, or you have them agree to immediate deportation," Townsend said.

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