Ronald Vitiello, Trump’s nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raised eyebrows at his confirmation hearing on Thursday (November 15) when he denied the existence of a family separation policy at the U.S./Mexico border. “It wasn’t a family separation policy,” the current acting head of ICE told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs. Instead, he said, “It was an increased level of prosecution.”

And while it is true that there was an increased level of prosecution of migrants crossing the U.S./ Mexico border, it’s also true that it resulted in the traumatic separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents beginning in April. Although the Trump administration ended the policy in June 2018, a federal court is still working to reunite affected families. 

Vitiello, who previously served as the acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection before departing for ICE, also refused to say there’s no chance the administration could return to its former practice of separating migrant families. According to The Washington Post, Vitiello explained that the Trump administration is considering detaining asylum-seeking families for up to 20 days before giving parents the option of staying in jail with their children “pending a deportation hearing, or allow children to be taken to a government shelter so other relatives or guardians can seek custody of them.” 

This “binary choice,” as he put it, would allow for faster legal proceedings and speedy deportations. However, there is no evidence to support this claim when immigration proceedings are typically delayed by backlogs in immigration courts. The nominee did not provide clarity to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about how long migrant children could expect to be held captive, or about the potential lasting trauma faced by these young people. 

The goal, according to Vitiello, is to discourage migrant parents from traveling with their children. “We’d like to be in a place where lots of people didn’t bring their kids to the border and try to cross illegally, but that’s the situation we’re faced with now,” he told Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) during the hearing. 

“If confirmed,” Vitiello continued, “one of my highest priorities will be to better demonstrate to the public, Congress, and the media the importance and criticality of the mission to protect the homeland and improve public safety — and why our agency’s existence should not be up for debate.”