WASHINGTON - As a crisis of migrant children separated from their families provoked a groundswell of national outrage, President Donald Trump insisted he was powerless to act through an executive order.
Five days later, he did just that.
“It’s about keeping families together,” Trump told reporters at the White House, after signing an executive order Wednesday that he said would end the practice. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
Trump acted after encountering widespread blowback from Democrats, Republicans, evangelical leaders, former first ladies — even the pope.
Wednesday’s order directs Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain families together when they are apprehended after crossing the border, and allows the immigrants to be housed on military bases. The directive may violate a 1997 court settlement and a 2008 law that require special handling of immigrant children.
Currently, Nielsen’s department must transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services after 72 hours if they are unaccompanied, or release them after 20 days if they’re with parents or other caregivers.
Trump’s order included no timeline for Nielsen’s department to begin detaining families together and is silent on when or how children already taken from their parents will be reunited with them. Spokesmen for the White House didn’t immediately respond to questions about the new policy.
Brian Marriott, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS, said in a statement that “It is still very early and we are awaiting guidance on the matter.” He added that the agency’s focus was on providing care and “reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program.”
Gene Hamilton, legal counsel to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said the Justice Department will ask a court to allow the administration to detain families for longer than 20 days.
Trump has come under intense criticism from Congress and the public over the separations, which according to the government have resulted in more than 2,000 children being placed in federal custody.
Senate Republicans had been preparing to advance legislation that would prohibit the government from splitting up families apprehended after crossing the border.
Trump’s decision to end the policy himself, though, represents a rare retreat for a president who often appears to court controversy. It also calls into question many of the administration’s recent claims about the basis of the “zero tolerance” policy that was announced by Sessions in April.
“It continues to be a zero tolerance,” Trump said Wednesday. “We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”
The president and his top aides have insisted for days that they had no choice but to separate children from their parents due to unspecified U.S. laws. Trump has blamed Democrats for the policy, saying they must cooperate on legislation to end the policy. There is no law requiring children to be separated from their parents at the border, and Trump could have stopped the practice at any time.
In the end, under increasing pressure from his own party, Trump chose to do just that. He acted as it became clear that House Republicans were unable to reach consensus on either of two immigration bills they were considering that included provisions to halt family separations. House leaders still hope to have votes on both bills on Thursday.
“What we have done today is we are keeping families together,” Trump said. “The borders are just as tough, just as strong. They can come in through ports of entry if they want. That’s a whole different story. And that’s coming in through a process, and the process is what we want.”
Trump continued his hard-line rhetoric at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday evening, reprising a pledge he made earlier in the year to add immigration curbs to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada as part of a renegotiation.
“We will have the greatest borders, the greatest walls,” Trump told a cheering crowd. “We have already started.”
Democrats found fault in the new order.
“Make no mistake: The president is doubling down on his ‘zero tolerance’ policy,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, in a statement. “His new executive order criminalizes asylum-seekers and seeks to indefinitely detain their children. Locking up whole families is no solution at all.”
Some Democrats, including potential presidential candidates for 2020, have recently traveled to the border to inspect detention centers and speak with immigrants, as well as journalists, or have made plans for such trips.
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio announced he would visit a camp in Tornillo, Texas, on Thursday that the government recently constructed to house immigrant children. Senator Kamala Harris of California will travel to the border region of her state on Friday to meet with migrant mothers whose children were taken into federal custody.
Earlier on Wednesday, De Blasio visited a facility in New York that he called an “intake center” for 239 immigrant children who had been placed in foster homes in the city. He accused federal authorities of concealing the placement of the children in New York.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who had not previously weighed in on the controversy which involves a relatively little-known arm of his agency, supported the separation policy in remarks at an event hosted by the Washington Post on Wednesday. He said his agency’s contractors do a good job of caring for the children in their custody.
Azar said he had visited a detention center himself, but wouldn’t disclose its location.
“These kids are well cared for,” Azar said. “They are receiving medical and psychological counseling. They get their meals, they have athletics every day, so we believe that we are doing the best we can to take care of these children extremely well.”
Before Sessions ordered the prosecution of anyone apprehended after illegally crossing the border, it was commonplace for Border Patrol to issue families notices to appear in court and release them into the interior of the U.S.
Trump has derided that practice as “catch-and-release.”
The recent furor over the family separations, and the chaotic White House response, have engulfed Republicans less than five months before November elections that will determine whether the GOP remains in control of Congress.
The issue drowned out the GOP’s preferred campaign message about a booming economy on the week of the six-month anniversary of the Trump tax cuts, and brought harrowing footage of wailing toddlers to American living rooms.
Trump’s wife was said to have been among those urging him to reverse course. First Lady Melania Trump encouraged Trump to act on his own if Congress wasn’t able to, a White House official said. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also spoke with the president several times to express her concerns, a person familiar with the matter said.
“Ivanka feels very strongly,” Trump said. “My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about it. I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it.”
Polls show the public is overwhelmingly opposed to separating immigrant children from their parents, though a majority of Republicans support the approach. Perhaps more importantly, 70 percent of women disapprove, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken June 14-17. Female suburban voters are considered crucial in deciding control of Congress this fall.