A bipartisan group of more than 70 former federal prosecutors is urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the administration's policy of separating illegal immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, adding their voice to a growing chorus calling for an end to a practice that has seen thousands of young children taken away from their parents in recent months.
“Like the majority of Americans, we have been horrified by the images and stories of children torn from their families along our nation’s Southwest Border,” the former United States attorneys wrote in a letter issued late Monday. “And like a majority of Americans, we are appalled that your Zero Tolerance policy has resulted in the unnecessary trauma and suffering of innocent children.”
“But as former United States Attorneys, we also emphasize that the Zero Tolerance policy is a radical departure from previous Justice Department policy, and that it is dangerous, expensive, and inconsistent with the values of the institution in which we served,” they wrote.
The plea comes as Democrats, some Republicans and others urge the administration to end its "zero-tolerance" policy on immigration enforcement.
Sessions announced the policy in April, directing border state prosecutors to take up all cases of unlawful entry referred by the Department of Homeland Security.
Then in May he announced a joint initiative by the departments of justice and homeland security under which "100 percent" of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would be detained and referred to prosecutors.
Because children cannot accompany their parents to adult detention facilities, they're separated and put in temporary housing while prosecutors determine their parents' fate.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Sessions said. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
The police announcement came after President Donald Trump ordered an end to a policy known as "catch and release," under which immigrants were released from detention while awaiting a court hearing.
While it is a common practice in the United States to remove children from the custody of parents who face criminal charges, the scale of the family separations at the southern border is unprecedented.
Under previous administrations, only a handful of immigrant families were separated at the border and only under exceptional circumstances such as when the life of the child was deemed in imminent danger.
The practice largely continued into the early months of the Trump administration but increased starting in May 2017, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
With the "zero-tolerance policy" initiative, the increase gave way to a deluge in recent months. A Homeland Security official said on Tuesday that more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9.
In their letter, the former prosecutors said the new policy deviates from a decades-long law enforcement policy on prosecuting illegal immigrants.
Under U.S. law, illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to one year in prison. Previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, gave prosecutors discretion to decide whether to bring illegal entry charges against someone.
The new policy took away the discretion from prosecutors, charging illegal entry mandatory and making family separations all too common.
The separations have provoked a firestorm, with administration officials defending them as necessary to deter illegal immigration and critics contending the crisis is being used by the administration as a bargaining chip in pushing Congress to pass tough immigration laws.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday that the Trump administration "did not create a policy of separating families at the border," contending that both the Bush and the Obama administrations separated families, albeit at a lower rate.
"This is not new," Nielsen said. "We have a statutory responsibility that we take seriously to protect alien children from human smuggling, trafficking and other criminal actions, while enforcing our immigration laws," she told reporters at the White House press conference.
Speaking at the National Sheriffs Association earlier on Monday, she said the minors are "very well taken care of."
Sessions, speaking at the same event, stood by the administration's policy.
WATCH: Sessions on separating parents, children
"We do not want to separate children from their parents," he said. "We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully, placing them at risk."
But in their open letter, the former prosecutors said the law "does not require the systematic separation of families under these circumstances."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letter.