Two days ago, the Trump administration falsely claimed the president was powerless to stop separating children from their parents at the southern border.
“Congress alone can fix it,” Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Monday even though it was the administration's own policy changes that's resulted in the separation of families.
Not anymore, apparently.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order stopping the separation of families at the border, a consequence of his administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all adults who enter the country illegally, and separates them from their children.
"We're signing an executive order. I consider it to be a very important executive order. It's about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure we have a very powerful, very strong border," Trump said Wednesday, flanked by Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence.
The order signed Wednesday afternoon does not revert to pre-“zero tolerance” policy, but rather opts to detain children with their parents. Trump also instructed the Justice Department to contest the “Flores settlement,” which states that children cannot be detained past 20 days. Beyond that legal casework, there are still many open questions about how to implement such a policy, including what will happen to the 2,000-plus children already separated from their parents and how facilities designed for adults will handle children.
The separation of over 2,000 children from their parents and the creation of separate “tender age” facilities for toddlers and babies has provoked widespread outrage across the country, especially in the past week as images of encaged children and audio of crying toddlers became public. One 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome was separated from her mother at the border and has been held at a Texas detention center despite her father being a legal resident.
But Trump and his close allies had been defiant. His former campaign manager Corey Lewankdowski responded with a “womp womp” when asked about the 10-year-old with Down syndrome being separated from her mother.
Trump had tweeted repeatedly over the last week that it was the Democratic Party’s fault and that Congress had to act to fix the problem.
Trump said Monday that “the United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. Won't be,” in explaining his approach. “You look at what's happening in Europe, you look at what's happening in other places; we can't allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch."
Illegal border crossings are at the lowest levels since the early 1970s, but an uptick this past spring as the weather warmed infuriated Trump, prompting him to announce the deployment of National Guard troops to the Southern border and pressure Nielsen and others in his administration to do more.
And while illegal crossings are down, Trump also appeared to be referring to the increase in migrants claiming they were fleeing violence and appealing for asylum in the U.S. Earlier this year, the administration claimed there was a backlog of over 300,000 pending asylum cases. Trump has been unsympathetic to the plight of refugees across the world, arguing that America is more secure by rejecting them.
But all the immigration proposals in Congress were stuck with no sign of anything being able to pass. The House of Representatives had several competing proposals that were expected to be voted on as soon as tomorrow, but none of them stood much chance of getting 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats are divided 51-49. The Senate, meanwhile, was divided between two competing proposals from Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, with few signs of compromise on the horizon.
Democrats see no reason to compromise with Republicans to fix a problem that Trump created, and Republicans don’t want to pass any legislation that they think will soften enforcement of undocumented immigration. As the political stalemate has hardened, the number of children being separated from their parents has continued to increase.
Meanwhile, Republicans are eager to see the family separations stop, and they've been encouraging Trump to change the policy himself.
“Well, I sent a message to the administration that they have to resolve these problems because these children shouldn’t have to suffer, and so we’re staying right on top of that,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said.
Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada told reporters that he wanted Trump to stop the policy “right now” and that he's "truly not satisfied” with the White House’s response.
It’s still unclear if Trump’s actions on Wednesday will actually fix the underlying humanitarian crisis at the border, however.
At the White House roundtable with other senators Wednesday morning, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said, “We cannot allow a child to be a get-out-of-jail-free card and a get-into-the-U.S.-free ticket.”
Trump nodded in agreement.
Cover image: President Donald Trump speaks on immigration issues with members of the U.S. Congress in the Cabinet Room of the White House June 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)