WASHINGTON (AP) — Bowing to pressure from anxious allies, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the U.S. border illegally.
It was a dramatic turnaround for Trump, who has been insisting, wrongly, that his administration had no choice but to separate families apprehended at the border because of federal law and a court decision.
The news in recent days has been dominated by searing images of children held in cages at border facilities, as well as audio recordings of young children crying for their parents – images that have sparked fury, question of morality and concern from Republicans about a negative impact on their races in November’s midterm elections.
Until Wednesday, the president, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other officials had repeatedly argued the only way to end the practice was for Congress to pass new legislation, while Democrats said he could do it with his signature alone. That’s what he did on Wednesday.
“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep the families together,” said Trump who said he didn’t like the “sight” or “feeling” of children separated from their parents.
He said his order would not end the “zero-tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all adults caught crossing the border illegally. The order aims to keep families together while they are in custody, expedite their cases and ask the Department of Defense to help house families.
Justice Department lawyers had been working to find a legal workaround for a previous class-action settlement that set policies for the treatment and release of unaccompanied children who are caught at the border.
Still, Trump’s order is likely to create a new set of problems involving length of detention of families and may spark a fresh court fight.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said in a statement Wednesday that he was among a group of 12 Republican senators who sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for a moratorium on the family separation policy. The letter petitioned the administration to stop enforcement of this policy until Congress can pass legislation to keep families together.
“I appreciate the President’s willingness to listen to us on this issue,” Hatch said in the statement. “We all understand how important it is to enforce our immigration laws, but we also all agree that separating children from their parents is not the right course of action.”
Senate Republicans introduced legislation aimed at keeping migrant children with parents being held after illegally crossing the U.S. border.
Under the seven-page measure, children under age 18 would be kept with their families in residential centers during legal proceedings. Facilities would have to be “secure and safe.” Children would be separated from adults who are not their parent or have serious criminal records, or if there is evidence of abuse or trafficking.
The government would prioritize processing such families, and add 1,000 additional beds and 225 immigration judges.
“Securing our nation’s border is among the federal government’s top priorities,” Sen. Mike Lee said, “but we should also never lose sight of the values that make us Americans. The Protect Parents and Kids Act will end the separation of children from their parents while also improving the tools law enforcement agencies need to secure the border and adjudicate asylum claims.
“It is vitally important that the Senate swiftly pass this legislation which will bring great relief to thousands of people on our southern border.”
Trump had tweeted earlier Wednesday, “It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation. They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something – it never ends!”
The administration recently put into place a “zero tolerance” policy in which all unlawful border crossings are referred for prosecution – a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the Obama administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.
The policy had led to a spike in family separations in recent weeks, with more than 2,300 minors separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Two people close to Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen said early Wednesday that she was the driving force behind the plan to keep families together after they are detained crossing the border illegally.
One of the people said Nielsen, who had become the face of the administration’s policy, had little faith that Congress would act to fix the separation issue and felt compelled to act. Nielsen was heckled at a restaurant Tuesday evening and has faced protesters at her home.
But others pushed back on the idea that Homeland Security had led the rollback. One official said it was the Justice Department that generated the legal strategy that is codified in the working executive order and disputed the notion that Homeland Security was involved in drawing up the document.
Planning at the Justice Department had been underway over the past several days to provide the president with options on the growing crisis, said the official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the effort before its official announcement.
The person said Trump called the Justice Department Wednesday morning asking for the draft order. The official did not know what prompted Trump to change course.
The Flores settlement, named for a teenage girl who brought the case in the 1980s, requires the government to release children from custody and to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers, in order of preference. If those options are exhausted, authorities must find the “least restrictive” setting for the child who arrived without parents.
In 2015, a federal judge in Los Angeles expanded the terms of the settlement, ruling that it applies to children who are caught with their parents as well as to those who come to the U.S. alone. Other recent rulings, upheld on appeal, affirm the children’s rights to a bond hearing and require better conditions at the Border Patrol’s short-term holding facilities.
In 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that child migrants who came to the border with parents and were held in custody must be released. The decision did not state parents must be released. Neither, though, did it require parents to be kept in detention, apart from their children.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who said he was born into a family with an immigrant father, issued a statement Wednesday in support of Trump’s executive order, calling the immigration system “flawed.”
“I applaud President Trump’s executive order stopping family separations at the border. No one wants to see children separated from their parents.
“It has been obvious for decades and under multiple administrations that our immigration system is flawed. Legal loopholes not only impede moral and pragmatic relocation and residence of families, but also fuel the human trafficking scourge among many vulnerable populations and ages.
“Congress needs to come together, setting aside partisan differences, to close these loopholes immediately and fix the problem.”
Written by JILL COLVIN and COLLEEN LONG, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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