WASHINGTON — President Trump, in a dramatic about-face after days of excruciating images and audio of crying children who had been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, reversed a policy on Wednesday that his administration has spent the past week defending.
Instead of separating children, Trump declared, his administration will now detain families together indefinitely. Because previous court orders require that children be released after 20 days in detention, a legal showdown is expected over Trump’s new order.
His policy of “zero tolerance,’’ which means criminally prosecuting everyone caught crossing the border illegally, will continue, Trump said. That policy will further strain a detention and prosecution network that is bursting at the seams. Trump’s order said the Department of Defense would provide space for housing families in detention, presumably at military installations.
“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Trump said as he signed the executive order in the Oval Office. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
It was a case of a rare retreat by Trump, whose defiance in the face of critics has defined his political style. Even as he relented to a widespread public outcry that his policy was inhumane, Trump sought to blame Congress and past presidents for the border crisis.
Yet the forced separations were a product of Trump’s toughening of enforcement practices, as he sought to prosecute all immigrants entering the United States illegally. That meant sending parents into custody without their children.
The president and his team have spent weeks attempting to defend that move, falsely blaming Democrats and Congress, citing Bible verses about upholding laws, and saying that immigrants needed to be deterred.
But none of those strategies proved to be effective as images emerged of children in chain-link holding pens and as audio of some of them wailing for their mothers and fathers went viral. The media, including the Globe, highlighted stories of children and parents unable to locate one another within a dysfunctional and seemingly callous bureaucracy. Some parents were deported while their children stayed behind in US custody.
More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents as a result of the policy, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security. It did not appear that those children will be immediately reunited with their parents.
“It’s a relief that the president has reversed himself and recognized the cruelty of his policy of separating children from their parents,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “While the executive order doesn’t reference the families already ripped apart, I hope and expect that the administration will be able to quickly reunite these children with their parents.”
The policy triggered international condemnation — from Pope Francis calling it “immoral” to British Prime Minister Teresa May saying it was “deeply disturbing” — and Republican consternation. Many in his own party were flabbergasted that he rolled out a policy with little foresight and then stuck to defending it. Many Republicans became concerned about their midterm election prospects in less than five months. Trump’s wife, Melania, an immigrant herself, and oldest daughter, Ivanka, were expressing concern with his policy.
Protesters shouted down Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she dined at a Mexican restaurant in Washington. One of Trump’s former top campaign advisers, Corey Lewandowski, further infuriated critics by saying “womp, womp” in a mocking tone after another guest on Fox News pointed out that a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome was separated from her mother.
Former president Barack Obama, who has generally tried to avoid commenting on decisions made by his successor, released a statement on Facebook on Wednesday morning.
“To watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question: are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?” Obama said. “Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?”
The order that Trump signed on Wednesday said that while the administration will “rigorously enforce” immigration laws, “it is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”
Officials will not detain families together if the welfare of the child would be at risk by doing so.
The order calls on the Defense Department to take measures to find available facilities to house the families — including constructing facilities. It also says Attorney General Jeff Sessions should promptly file a request to modify the so-called Flores settlement, a 1997 order that prohibits children from being detained under certain conditions. Past court decisions have also said that children cannot be detained for longer than 20 days.
Previous administrations have released children with their parents, giving them electronic monitoring devices and ordering them to reappear for a court date.
Instead, Trump wants federal authorities to be able to detain families “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings,” according to his Wednesday order. Those proceedings can take months or even years to take place, although the order asks Sessions to “prioritize” the hearings involving families in detention.
Trump’s approach could leave him exposed to legal challenges if a judge won’t accede to Sessions’ request to modify the Flores settlement.
Congress could step in and change the law, but lawmakers have been gridlocked on just about every issue — particularly on anything that deals with immigration.
The House is planning to vote on Thursday on two Republican-led immigration proposals. One of those is meant to be a compromise with moderate Republicans. The legislation would grant so-called Dreamers — immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children — a pathway to citizenship, while also providing $25 billion in funding for extending a wall along the border. Another more hard-line proposal does not grant a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Democrats oppose both proposals, and Republican leaders don’t believe they have enough votes for either to pass.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.