On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order to end the administration’s policy that separated migrant families at the U.S. border with Mexico. The move comes after public outcry regarding the harshness of the policy. The president had previously stated the policy was not his and could not be changed without the help of Congress. However, public pressure appears to have changed his stance.
“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump told reporters. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.” However, Trump went on to create confusion by stating that he still wanted a zero tolerance policy at the border. The administration has, since the campaign trail, had an unusually harsh view on immigration policies. “We are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be zero tolerance,” he stated.
Further confusing the public, Trump’s executive order seemed to indicate he was still waiting on Congress for resolution, as the document was titled “Executive order affording Congress an opportunity to address family separation.”
Many are concerned that the confusion surrounding the executive order, and its language, weaken its potential to solve the crisis that exists at the border. Furthermore, the administration has made it clear that children who have already been separated from their parents won’t be reunited soon, even if both the parents and children are both in custody.
It is this separation that first brought on the public outcry over the administration’s harsh policies, as multiple news networks had begun airing footage of children held in cages after they were taken into custody at the border, separately from their parents. Audio and video footage showed a true crisis: Women were being told their children were taken for baths or snacks, yet the children weren’t returned. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that young children were being placed in “Tender Age Shelters.” This caused public outcry to reach new highs.
The administration insisted the laws were in place prior to Trump assuming office, and that the laws in place required the separations to happen due to illegal border crossings. In fact, Trump and his aids openly blamed Democrats for the crisis, saying nothing could be changed without Congressional action. “It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. He also tweeted, “They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something — it never ends!” He even retweeted a statement by Darrell Scott, pastor and Trump supporter, that read, “Once the mid terms are over, liberals won’t talk about detained or separated illegal immigrant children until 2020. #itsallpolitics.”
However, the Department of Justice made a specific decision in April to prosecute border-crossers criminally, rather than regarding it as they had in the past, which was largely a civil matter. Session described the change as enforcing “zero tolerance,” policies on the border. Under the “zero tolerance policy,” parents were taken into custody by US marshals, while their children were handed over to federal welfare agencies. The footage aired by many news outlets indicated that separations happened both at the border and shortly after arrival. Lawmakers, as a result of the released photos and footage, were flooded with angry letters and phone calls.
The criticism wasn’t just from concerned citizens. Former first ladies spoke out against the separations, as did activists and religious leaders, including the Pope. A White House official even stated that first lady Melania Trump had been privately encouraging her husband to act on the crisis. On Wednesday, White House aides concluded that Congress would not act quickly enough, but that Trump was willing to sign a very narrow executive order to remedy the situation. Many in the White House were left in the dark, however, and did not know the President was ready to take action. Among those were key members of the White House legislative affairs team, who, according to sources close to them, hadn’t seen the contents of the order as late as Wednesday afternoon. Most surprising, however, was the administration’s decision not to inform the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement legal team. It is unclear how much was known to ICE and several component agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, as they have declined to comment.
The United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, initially expressed criticism over the zero tolerance policy, citing that Congress would need to take action to enforce it. However, her stance quickly shifted as she defended the administration’s policy at a White House briefing on Monday. On Tuesday, protestors confronted her as she had dinner in a Mexican restaurant in D.C.
After the executive order was signed on Wednesday, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, tweeted, “Thank you @POTUS for taking critical action ending family separation at our border. Congress must now act + find a lasting solution that is consistent with our shared values; the same values that so many come here seeking as they endeavor to create a better life for their families.”
Activists insist that the executive order is likely not enough to end the crisis at the border. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the administration on behalf of separated families, and has stated that any prolonged detention of asylum seekers is unacceptable, even if they are held together as families. “We don’t want to see a situation where they are building more and more detention facilities,” said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. Gelernt also serves as the deputy director of the Immigrant Rights Project at the ACLU.