WASHINGTON — Tense arguments broke out at the White House over the past two days as top government officials clashed over how to carry out President Trump’s executive order on keeping together immigrant families at the Mexican border, according to four people familiar with the meetings.
The disputes started Thursday night. They continued Friday as Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, returned to the White House to question how his agency was supposed to detain parents and children together when the law requires that children not be held indefinitely in jail.
The bureaucratic battles threatened to undermine Trump as his administration tries to counter a political crisis driven by heartbreaking images and recordings of crying migrant children separated from their parents and sent off to shelters.
On Friday, the president was defiant. “We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief,” Trump said on Twitter.
But inside the White House, the arguments echoed the chaos at American airports that Trump, days after taking office, plunged the government into with his ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries that surprised Border Patrol agents and State Department consular officials.
Officials at the southwestern border are struggling to obey Trump’s demand to prosecute people who illegally enter the United States — ending what the president has reviled as a “catch and release” policy — while also following an executive order he issued Wednesday to keep migrant families together as they are processed in courts.
But as with the case of the travel ban, the reality of a vastly complicated bureaucratic system is colliding head-on with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip use of executive power and contradictory statements.
For the past week, Trump has demanded changes in US immigration laws and encouraged Congress to act with urgency. But on Friday morning, he appeared to give up hope that the Republican-controlled Congress could succeed in passing an immigration bill this year, urging lawmakers in a tweet to stop “wasting their time.”
The president said a vote on immigration legislation should be postponed until after the midterm elections in November, when he expects Republicans to pick up more seats and create a stronger majority — a prediction that is far from guaranteed.
But House Republicans are moving forward as planned with efforts to pass immigration legislation, said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority whip.
“I think the president’s expressing his frustration that Democrats don’t want to solve the problem while we do,” Scalise said. “We’re going to keep working to try to get it done.”
This week, the president’s whiplash-inducing executive order on family separations caught several people by surprise. Just a day before Trump signed it, one person close to the president said that he told advisers that separating families at the border was the best deterrent to illegal immigration and he said that “my people love it.”
Even on Wednesday, Trump repeatedly changed his mind about precisely what he wanted to do, and how, until a short time before he signed the order.
Thursday night’s meeting was held in the White House Situation Room and lasted at least 90 minutes, according to four officials briefed on the discussion who described it on the condition of anonymity.
They said Customs and Border Protection officials forcefully argued that agents who are apprehending migrant families at the border cannot refer all the adults for prosecution because the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to process each case.
In particular, the border officials expressed concern about the number of prosecutors and judges needed to handle the proceedings, and the lack of space available to detain families while the cases go forward.
As a result, the officials from Customs and Border Protection told White House and Justice Department officials that they have had to issue fewer prosecution referrals of adults with children despite the president’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
Justice Department officials shot back, maintaining that the department has made no changes to its hard-line stance on illegal border crossings as it continues to receive referrals for prosecutions from Customs and Border Protection agents.
Government lawyers will “prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Thursday in a statement.
Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four bases: Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas; Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas; Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas; and Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas.
It was not immediately clear on Friday if the parents could also be housed there.
Customs and Border Protection officials said Friday that nearly 500 children who were separated since May have been reunited or will be reunited with their families by Sunday. These children were in the agency’s custody, never having been sent to facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department.
It is unclear when the other 2,300 children will be reunited with their families. They have been separated from their parents since the zero-tolerance policy was announced. The children have been placed in facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department, some of them thousands of miles from where their parents are being detained.
Administration officials said they have finalized a process to let parents know where their children are and to have regular communication with them after separation.
Parents who are deported will be reunited with their children before being removed from the country, officials said.