U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered authorities to stop separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border, a crisis caused by his “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting all people who cross the frontier illegally.
After days of insisting he could do nothing to stop the family breakups, falsely blaming Democrats and claiming it was entirely up to Congress to act, the President caved in on Wednesday amid a revolt within his own Republican Party and an avalanche of international condemnation, from the United Nations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated … at the same time, we are keeping a very powerful border,” Mr. Trump said as he signed the executive order in the Oval Office. “You’re going to have a lot of happy people.”
The order directs that children be kept with their parents at special detention facilities to be provided by the Department of Defense as the parents go through the criminal justice system. It also provides for their cases to be prioritized for processing.
But Mr. Trump’s order continues the “zero tolerance” policy and therefore may not actually solve the problem. A court order prohibiting U.S. authorities from detaining underage immigrants for more than 20 days remains in effect. Because the President insists on continuing criminal prosecutions of the parents, this means that after 20 days, the children would have to leave the detention facilities where their parents are being held.
As well, Mr. Trump’s new edict will not apply to the more than 2,300 children currently separated from parents who are going through criminal proceedings, so these families will not be immediately reunited.
Gene Hamilton, a counsellor to Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, admitted in a briefing on Wednesday that the order was “a stop-gap measure.” He said the administration would try to persuade a court to overturn the 20-day rule and called on Congress to pass a law allowing the government to keep underage immigrants in custody for longer.
But the move aims, at least temporarily, to defuse what had threatened to become one of the greatest crises of Mr. Trump’s tumultuous presidency. The more than 2,000 children — including babies and toddlers — held in detention camps and in cages along the border brought a tidal wave of criticism that swamped the administration.
GOP legislators lined up to plead with Mr. Trump to change course. Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Videgaray called a news conference to highlight the plight of a 10-year-old Mexican girl with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother and detained even though her father is in the United States legally. And Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is responsible for enforcing the policy, was hounded out of a Mexican restaurant in Washington by immigration activists shouting “Shame!”
Mr. Trudeau, who is typically careful in his treatment of the volatile Mr. Trump while their countries are locked in a trade war and tense negotiations over the North American free-trade agreement, added his voice to the outcry earlier on Wednesday.
“What’s going on in the United States is wrong,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Parliament Hill. “I can’t imagine what the families living through this are enduring. Obviously, this is not the way we do things in Canada.”
The showdown also brought a return of the dark xenophobic language of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. On Twitter, he warned that migrants want to “pour into and infest our Country,” equated them with gangsters and claimed Syrian immigrants to Europe have “strongly and violently” changed the “culture” of their host countries.
Mr. Trump also wrongly claimed the reason for the separations was that that “the Democrats forced that law upon our nation.” The separations were the result of Mr. Trump’s decision to have migrants face criminal charges, rather than leave them to the regular immigration system. The legal prohibition on detaining migrant children more than 20 days, the Flores agreement, was not a Democratic law but a court order.
The President used the crisis as a bargaining chip to demand Congress pass legislation to fund his promised wall on the Mexican border, as well as grant the administration more power to keep minors in indefinite detention and swiftly deport them.
Congressional Republicans have drafted two immigration bills that would do this, as well as reduce legal immigration and deal with the immigration status of people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
The bills are expected to come to a vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday. Whether either can pass is uncertain. Democrats are expected to vote against them, because they would cut immigration, and the GOP caucus is notoriously divided between its moderate and conservative wings.
Without a legislative fix — and with Mr. Trump sticking to “zero tolerance” — the stand-off may be far from over.
Mae Ngai, an immigration expert and Columbia University professor, said the administration is unlikely to persuade the court to change its mind on the 20-day limit for detaining children, opening the government up to legal challenges if it tried to keep families together in custody longer.
And even though families may no longer be separated, they are still going to be housed in camps or other detention facilities because the President wants to continue prosecuting migrants for the relatively minor offence of crossing the border illegally.
“He’s saying ‘zero tolerance’ to sound tough. He has no idea what any of this means on the ground,” she said in an interview. “I hope people don’t breathe a sigh of relief. It’s still going to be a big mess.”
The Trump administration has been undertaking the separations for at least a year and announced a blanket “zero tolerance” policy last month. Opposition exploded last week, when authorities released photographs from inside the child detention centres. And it grew as stories of increasing desperation emerged.
Mr. Videgaray described the separations as “inhuman and cruel.”