WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, facing growing backlash over his administration’s migrant family separation policy, signed an executive order Wednesday halting the controversial practice.
“It’s about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border,” Trump told reporters before signing the order at the Oval Office. He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Under the order, the administration will continue to enforce criminal prosecutions of adult migrants caught entering the U.S. illegally, but will stop short of separating children from their parents as has been done since April when the Department of Justice implemented a “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of some 2,000 minors.
Trump’s executive order calls for maintaining “family unity” and directs the Department of Defense to ensure families are housed together as they await the outcome of their deportation proceedings, according to a copy of the document provided by the White House.
The order also directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to request a modification to a 1997 federal settlement agreement, known as the Flores settlement, that limits the amount of time minors can be held in immigration detention centers to 20 days. The administration will seek permission to keep children in the facilities with their parents “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings,” but with immigration courts currently grappling with tremendous backlogs it remains to be seen if a federal court will approve the administration’s request.
“We want security for our country. . We will have that, at the same time, we have compassion, we want to keep families together,” Trump said before a meeting with a select group of Republican lawmakers at the White House Wednesday afternoon.
Trump’s move to lift the child separation policy followed days of mounting furor over the practice. Images of children sleeping in chain link fenced holding cells and audio of detained minors crying out for their parents sparked widespread condemnation from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, foreign heads of state, religious leaders including Pope Francis, and the business community.
On Wednesday, American Airlines, United and Frontier Airlines issued statements asking the Trump administration not to use their carriers to transport separated minors to immigration detention centers throughout the country. Their request came a day after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the Methodist denomination all called for Trump to reverse the policy.
Trump acknowledged the images, telling reporters : “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
The president signed Wednesday’s order despite insisting for days, along with his top administration officials, that he did not have the unilateral authority to lift the separation policy that his administration officials had described as a deterrent to illegal immigration. On Friday, speaking to reporters during an impromptu interview on the White House North Lawn, Trump said “We can’t do it through an executive order.” On Monday, Nielsen in a White House press briefing said, “Congress alone can fix it.”
Trump, Pence and Nielsen speaking from the Oval Office continued to call on lawmakers to pass a legislative solution as part of a broader immigration overhaul package. The executive order itself is titled “Affording Congress An Opportunity to Address Family Separation.”
“We are calling on Congress to change the laws in this regard and in a broad range of areas that will secure our borders and give us strength and confidence that we are once again going to take the steps necessary to end the crisis of illegal immigration in America,” Pence said.
Trump’s order does not address the reunification process for those children currently still separated from their parents. Several accounts have emerged of parents being deported before being reunited with their children, or of parents having difficulties tracking down their children.
The ACLU, which filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the separations, said in statement: “An eleventh-hour executive order doesn’t fix the harm done to thousands of children and their parents.”