WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump hardened his resolve to maintain his policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally amid an intensifying backlash from the public and lawmakers.
Trump said Tuesday at a speech to a small-business trade group in Washington that he has “only two options” for immigration enforcement, either “totally open borders or criminal prosecution for law-breaking.” The administration began separating children from their parents as it adopted a policy of criminally charging all adults apprehended for unlawfully crossing the border.
“People that come in violate the law, they endanger their children in the process,” Trump told the National Federation of Independent Business. He said that Democrats could end the policy by agreeing to immigration law changes he is seeking, including authority to quickly send back whole families apprehended near the border to their home countries.
The Trump administration is detaining immigrant children in 17 states, including more than 2,000 taken from their parents after they crossed the U.S. border illegally, officials said in a briefing before the speech.
Lawmakers are scrambling to draft legislation that would prevent his administration from taking children from immigrant parents caught crossing the border illegally. The detentions have exploded into a political crisis for Republican lawmakers who are trying to hold control of Congress in elections less than five months away.
Images and accounts of the thousands of children being held in temporary centers after the arrest of their parents have sparked a firestorm of dissent that’s expanded to include Republican governors and party luminaries such as former first lady Laura Bush. Even a spokesman for the French government said the separations were “shocking” and showed a different “model of civilization” between the U.S. and Europe.
Trump criticized the media for its coverage of the controversy, saying news organizations’ stories “are helping these smugglers and traffickers” that profit from illegal immigration.
Business groups including the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable also have called for an end to the family separations. “This practice is cruel and contrary to American values,” Chuck Robbins, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems Inc. and head of the Business Roundtable’s Immigration Committee, said in a statement.
Customs and Border Patrol field supervisors have been given discretion to let children under age 5 stay with their parents, Brian Hastings, an official with the agency, said on a conference call with reporters. He didn’t say how many children under 5 are being separated from parents.
Steve Wagner, the acting assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families, said the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is housing 11,786 immigrant children, most of whom entered the country unaccompanied by caregivers.
“We must always arrest people coming into our Country illegally,” Trump said in a tweet. “Of the 12,000 children, 10,000 are being sent by their parents on a very dangerous trip, and only 2000 are with their parents, many of whom have tried to enter our Country illegally on numerous occasions.”
Trump is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon with House Republicans at the Capitol. His policy has prompted a flurry of proposals from lawmakers to put an end to the practice of separating families.
All 49 Senate Democrats are rallying behind a proposal by California Sen.Dianne Feinstein to prohibit children from being separated from their parents within 100 miles of the U.S. border except for instances of abuse, neglect or other specific circumstances.
Republican lawmakers have dismissed the Democratic plan, but in a rare rebuke of Trump they also are calling for an end to the policy and are sorting through multiple proposals being offered in the House and Senate.
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said a group of GOP senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and James Lankford of Oklahoma, is working on a narrow bill to keep families together during expedited reviews of the children’s status, which they plan to present at Tuesday’s GOP lunch. He warned against trying to add other immigration-related provisions, saying attempts at wider legislation have repeatedly gotten tied up by differences within the party and fallen apart.
“The bottom line is it would make sure that families stay together through the entirety of the legal proceedings and that they get an expedited hearing in front of an immigration judge to see if they qualify for any immigration benefits like asylum,” Cornyn told reporters.
House Republicans were already locked in intra-party negotiations over two bills that would authorize funds for Trump’s border wall, eliminate some categories of legal immigration and protect some young immigrants from deportation. A provision to allow children to stay with their parents while they’re in custody was added to both proposals.
These two House bills — one sponsored by Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte and another that represents a compromise between GOP ideological factions — are slated for a floor vote Thursday. Democrats were not included in this negotiation and probably won’t vote for either bill, making it more difficult to pass with only GOP votes.
Republican leaders haven’t indicated whether they’ll get behind stand-alone legislation to block the family separations, and Trump has indicated he wants a broader package of changes to immigration law, including money for a border wall and restrictions on legal immigration and refugee admissions.
Marc Short, the White House liaison to Congress, deflected a question about whether Trump would sign legislation dealing only with the family separation issue, calling it “hypothetical.”
“The entire issue at the border is unsustainable, that has been our point, that we need this addressed now, so no, it is absolutely not sustainable,” he said.
The administration has given varying rationales for the policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said it was implemented to serve as a deterrent to people trying to get into the U.S. illegally. Trump has claimed the administration was just following the law and falsely blamed Democrats for blocking changes. Some congressional Republicans have blamed a 1997 court settlement, though no previous administration has undertaken a similar policy.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration made no apologies for splitting families at the border and said it was a consequence of the government’s prosecution of immigrants apprehended illegally entering the U.S.
“Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals,” Nielsen said Monday at a briefing. “If an American were to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, they would go to jail and they would be separated from their family. This is not a controversial idea.”