Protesters participate in a rally organized by Families Belong Together, speaking out against the Trump administration's policies separating immigrant families. Credit: Michael Candelori/Pacific Press/Sipa via AP Images

In a closed forum Friday, a legal adviser for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement framed his agency’s role in separating families at the border as limited to the transportation of children taken from their parents.  

Kenneth Padilla’s remarks came during a meeting with about 200 people attending the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in San Francisco. Padilla is the agency’s deputy principal legal adviser for field legal operations.

The meeting was closed to the news media. It focused on litigation, and Padilla specifically avoided any questions about ICE enforcement – with the exception of one question about family separation that he had agreed to answer before the forum took place.

Padilla’s remarks about family separation were confirmed to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting by several people who attended the conference.

“The (Justice Department), because of the zero tolerance, has decided to prosecute those under 1325,” said Padilla, referring to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memorandum that directs the criminal prosecution of people who enter the United States without inspection under 8 U.S. Code 1325 – a class B misdemeanor.

President Donald Trump has blamed the separation of families at the border on Democrats. Padilla’s remarks appeared to counter the president’s claim.

ICE spokeswoman Jennifer D. Elzea told Reveal that Padilla’s remarks “were focused on the applicable laws and policies and the resulting process. (Padilla) did not comment on the broader cause(s) behind the policies or process.”

At the meeting, Padilla said children can’t join parents when they’re brought into U.S. Marshals Service custody. He said ICE’s role then is to transport children into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

“Our job, if they go to (Customs and Border Protection), is to help transport the kids to HHS,” Padilla said. “That’s the full extent of ICE’s role. And then HHS sort of takes care of the child and sort of placement and trying to find a sponsor.”

The litigator repeated his framing of ICE’s specific role in separating children from parents.

“I know everyone has their opinion about what’s going on,” Padilla said. “But ICE’s role is just to, you know – when a child is ready to be transported to HHS, ICE transports the child to HHS.”

As Padilla closed his remarks on the matter, one person in attendance shouted out a question about family reunification. But the forum’s moderator shut down any additional questions. Padilla then continued to talk about ICE litigation in the courts.

Aura Bogado can be reached at abogado@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @aurabogado.

Aura Bogado is a senior reporter and producer at Reveal and a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Her impact-driven work covers immigration, with a focus on migrant children in federal custody. She's earned an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Hillman Prize and an Investigative Reporters & Editors FOI Award, and she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and an Emmy nominee. Bogado was a 2021 data fellow at the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She was previously a staff writer at Grist, where she wrote about the intersection of race and the environment, and also worked for Colorlines and The Nation.