WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he is not looking to reinstate his administration’s controversial “zero-tolerance” policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the southern border last year.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House before a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, dismissed recent reports that he has been discussing the prospect of reviving the policy amid a leadership shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security.
“We're not looking to do that," Trump said, before defending the practice as a deterrent to dissuade migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.
“Now, I'll tell you something, once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming,” Trump said. “They're coming like it's a picnic, because, ‘Let's go to Disneyland.’ ”
Trump called off his administration’s “zero-tolerance” border enforcement policy last summer, amid widespread protests and legal challenges surrounding the administration’s handling of the separations. Immigration attorneys representing some of the migrants have complained that the administration did not effectively document and track the children, who were often placed in shelters throughout the United States as their parents awaited an immigration court hearing. On Tuesday, Trump blamed President Barack Obama for the practice of separating children at the border. Both presidents have come under fire for detaining migrant youth in chain-link holding cells.
“Obama separated the children, by the way. Just so you understand. President Obama separated the children,” Trump said. “Those cages that were shown — I think they were very inappropriate. They were built by President Obama's administration, not by Trump.”
Obama administration officials have previously said border patrol officials separated children when there was suspicion of abuse or human trafficking, and they also grappled with a surge in migrant minors attempting to cross the border without their parents, but there was never a universal policy such as Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy that forced all minors to be held apart from their guardians.
Trump’s remarks came as a senior administration official told The Associated Press the administration has been weighing the possibility of enacting a new policy that would give migrant families the choice of remaining with their children in detention until their immigration cases are decided, or separating from their children.
At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the issue of child detentions, a Department of Health and Human Services official aiding with the reunification effort of migrant children still in detention warned that the federal government was running out of space to detain any further influx of minors.
“It also bears repeating, separating children from their parents entails significant risk of psychological harm. That is an undisputed scientific fact,” said U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White, in testimony before the panel. “We have made improvements to our tracking, but we do not have the capacity to receive that number of children, nor do we have any system that can manage the mass trauma.”
Days after the White House announced the departure of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secret Service Director Randolph Alles, and after Trump withdrew the nomination of acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Ron Vitiello to lead the agency, he denied he was looking to overhaul the department’s leadership.
“I never said I’m cleaning house,” Trump said. “I don’t know who came up with that expression. We have a lot of great people over there.”