WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump backed down and abandoned on Wednesday his policy of separating immigrant children from their families on the U.S.-Mexico border, after images of youngsters in cages sparked outrage at home and abroad.
Trump signed an executive order requiring that immigrant families be detained together when they are caught entering the country illegally for as long as their criminal proceedings take. That may violate a court settlement on how long children may be held, setting up a potential legal fight, unless Congress acts on the issue.
The Trump order, an unusual reversal by him, also moves parents with children to the front of the line for immigration proceedings. The order does not end a 10-week-old “zero tolerance” policy that calls for criminal prosecution of immigrants crossing the border illegally.
“It’s about keeping families together while at the same time making sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border,” Trump said as he signed the order in a hastily arranged Oval Office gathering minutes before departing for a campaign event.
The videos of kids sitting in cages and an audiotape of wailing children had sparked anger in the United States from groups ranging from clergy to influential business leaders, as well as condemnation from abroad, including by Pope Francis.
Trump, an avid viewer of cable television news, recognized that the family separation issue was a growing political problem, White House sources said.
First Lady Melania Trump, in private conversations with the president, urged him to do something, a White House official said. In the Oval Office, Trump said he had heard from his daughter Ivanka about the policy, too.
“Ivanka feels very strongly. 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,” Trump said.
Wednesday’s move was the most significant policy reversal by Trump since he took office in January 2017. Instinctively combative and fond of chaos, Trump usually digs in on controversial policies, rather than backing down.
But the volume of condemnation on breaking up families, from inside and outside the White House, finally overwhelmed Trump.
The reversal also creates a series of new headaches for the administration, as it wrestles with where to house families that are detained together, possibly for long periods, and how to reunite families that already have been separated.
“This executive order would replace one crisis for another. Children don’t belong in jail at all, even with their parents, under any set of circumstances. If the president thinks placing families in jail indefinitely is what people have been asking for, he is grossly mistaken,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.
Parents referred by border agents for prosecution are held in federal jails, while their children have remained in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody or have been moved into detention facilities managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a Department of Health and Human Services agency.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday that 2,342 children had been separated from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9.
The order directs the U.S. Justice Department to seek a modification of a court order to permit families that enter the United States illegally to be detained together until their criminal proceedings are concluded, a text of the order shows.
It also directs the Department of Defense to take steps to house detained immigrant families as needed.
Trump has made a tough stance on immigration central to his presidency. In recent days, he had insisted his hands were tied by law on the issue of family separations and blamed Democrats for the problem, even though his administration implemented the policy of strict adherence to immigration law.
BILLS IN CONGRESS
The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress is also considering legislation to address the issue. The House of Representatives planned to vote on Thursday on two bills designed to halt family separations and address a range of other immigration issues.
“We are working on a much more comprehensive bill,” Trump said.
Republicans said they were uncertain if either House measure would have enough votes to pass. Trump told House Republicans on Tuesday night he would support either of the bills.
Both House bills, which Democrats and immigration advocacy groups have blasted, would fund Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as reduce legal migration, in part by denying visas for some relatives of U.S. residents and citizens living abroad, sometimes called “chain migration.”
The more conservative bill from Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte also would deny the chance of future citizenship to “Dreamers,” who are immigrants brought illegally into the United States years ago as children.
House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that compromise legislation under discussion would provide funding to allow the Department of Homeland Security enough resources to house and care for families as they stayed together during the process.
“Under this bill, when people are being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border, families will remain together under DHS custody throughout the length of their legal proceedings,” he said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell, Amanda Becker and Mohammad Zargham in Washingtong; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish