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Ex-DHS secretary: No formal policy of family separation during Obama administration

Washington(CNN) Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Thursday evening that there had been no formal policy to separate the detained families of illegal immigrants under President Barack Obama.

While there were certainly "individual cases" of family separation "for reasons of health and safety," Johnson said, he denied the existence of an instituted practice during his tenure.

"It's not something I would have adopted," Johnson said on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper." "It's not something I would have permitted."

Johnson explained that children were only separated from their parents should they be criminally prosecuted and placed in the custody of the Department of Justice. The decision not to prosecute every person illegally crossing the borders -- especially if he or she had children -- was deliberate for Johnson.

"I didn't believe it was right," he said. "Pulling a child away from its mother ... it's not something I could do."

Such an approach is contrary to the Trump administration's current "zero-tolerance" policy, under which all who attempt to enter the US illegally face prosecution.

Johnson criticized the zero-tolerance policy as a "conscious policy choice" that has increased the number of children being separated from their parents.

His comments came after recent allegations that family separations occurred just as frequently, if not more, during previous administrations.

President Donald Trump has said this issue "has been going on under President Obama ... (and) under President Bush." Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has echoed these comments, saying the practice of family separation is "not new."

At least 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy in April, according to the Department of Homeland Security last Friday.

Despite Trump's signing of an executive order Wednesday to keep detained families together, it remains unclear how families who have already been separated will be reunited.

"The government here has some obligation to try to reunite the children with their parents," Johnson said. "How they're going to do that, I couldn't really tell you. It's not something we had to deal with in our administration."