President Donald Trump said Wednesday he is signing an executive order that would end the policy of separating migrant children from their parents as they illegally crossed the southern border with Mexico into the United States.
In perhaps the biggest policy reversal of his 17-month presidency, Trump said, “We want to keep families together. It’s very important. I’ll be signing something in a little while that’s going to do that.”
For days, Trump and key officials in his administration had contended that he could not act unilaterally to overturn the policy and that only Congress, through legislation, could ban the break-up of families.
The U.S. in the last six weeks has separated more than 2,300 young children from their parents and sent them to detention centers, while charging their parents with illegally entering the country.
But the Trump administration has come under withering attack for the policy, with Republican and Democratic officials alike calling it inhumane. Business and religious leaders, four former U.S. first ladies and Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, also voiced sharp criticism of the policy to split up migrant families, many of them escaping poverty and turmoil in Central America, as they illegally crossed U.S. border.
Trump told a group of lawmakers at the White House that the images of young children sobbing and looking scared as authorities took them from their parents “affect everybody,” but said he was torn by the issue.
“We want the heart,” he said, “but we also want strong borders and we want no crime.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump renewed his attacks on the media and opposition Democrats for the way they were portraying his administration’s policy.
The U.S. leader contended that the mainstream U.S. news outlets are “not mentioning the safety and security of our Country when talking about illegal immigration.” He claimed that U.S. immigration laws “are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world” and that Democrats “will do anything not to change them.”
“It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation,” Trump said, ignoring that Republicans control both chambers of Congress. “They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something – it never ends!”
Trump’s latest broadside against two of his favorite targets came hours after he met with fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives, voicing support for a pair of immigration measures the chamber plans to vote on Thursday to overhaul U.S. immigration policies and curb the separation of children from their parents at U.S.-Mexican border.
“We can enforce our immigration laws without breaking families apart,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, the leader of the Republican majority in the chamber, said before Trump announced he would sign an executive order to end breaking up families.
It is not clear, however, if either piece of House legislation has enough support to win passage.
Until deciding to sign the order, Trump had refused to rescind the policy, instead calling for Congress to act to end it, adopt more comprehensive immigration reforms and approve $25 billion in funding for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to thwart further illegal migration.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said Trump “endorsed both House immigration bills that build the wall, close legal loopholes, cancel the visa lottery, curb so-called ‘chain migration,’ and solve the border crisis and family separation issue by allowing for family detention and removal.”
Republican Congressman Mark Meadows said Trump told the lawmakers they need to get something done on immigration “right away.”Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday all 51 Republican senators in the 100-member Senate “support a plan that keeps families together,” adding he intends to ask Democrats to support the measure.
‘Tender age’ shelters
The Associated Press reported Tuesday the Trump administration has been sending babies and other young children separated from their parents at the border to at least three “tender age” shelters in South Texas, and that the government plans to open another shelter to house hundreds of young migrants in Houston.
AP cited lawyers and medical providers who have visited the shelters, saying they described play rooms with crying preschool-age children in crisis.
The report also quotes an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying the agency has “specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs and tender age children,” defined as youths under 13.
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VOA’s Steve Herman contributed to this report.