President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that he says will keep migrant families together during detention on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president backed down from a stand over his administration's policy of splitting migrant families, which for days the White House insisted could only end through congressional action. Facing a nationwide uproar and bipartisan calls to at least temporarily end the practice, the president said he "didn't like the sight or feeling of families being separated."
Trump said he will not end the administration's "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting every adult who crosses U.S. borders illegally, including those seeking asylum. The White House also will keep pressure on Congress to pass legislation that meets Trump's goals of halting the separation practice, funding his proposed border wall and limiting legal immigration.
"We're keeping families together and this will solve that problem. At the same time we are keeping a very powerful border and there continues to be a zero tolerance," Trump told reporters before he signed the order.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday what would happen to the children already separated from their parents. The order did not appear to address how the government would go about reuniting families.
Here's what the executive order would do, according to text circulated by the White House:
- It orders Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen "to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations" to keep families together during criminal proceedings.
- The measure says the administration does not have to keep families together "when there is a concern" that detaining a child with a parent "would pose a risk to the child's welfare."
- It directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to file a request with a federal district court in California to change a legal settlement that curbs the government's ability to keep children in detention.
- It orders Sessions to prioritize criminal proceedings for cases involving families.
Ahead of the signing, the House apparently still planned to vote Thursday on GOP-crafted immigration legislation that would enact stricter border security measures and offer a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. It is unclear whether Senate Republicans will still pursue more narrow legislation to address only family separation.
By signing the order, Trump may also have taken political pressure off Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer signaled he would be reluctant to support legislation to end the policy because Trump had the ability to halt it himself. If Trump had not signed the order, Democrats would have faced a tougher decision about backing a bill.
Speaking at the start of an earlier meeting with members of Congress, Trump said he faced a dilemma as criticism of his administration's policy has grown louder in the past week.
"The dilemma is if you're weak, ... the country is going to be overwhelmed with [undocumented immigrants]. ... If you're strong, then you don't have any heart. Perhaps I'd like to be strong," the president said, according to pool reporters in the room.
Earlier Wednesday, reports said Nielsen drafted a document in collaboration with White House lawyers. Nielsen has been the administration's most public face in defending the highly controversial policy, put in place this spring. On Tuesday night, she was confronted by protesters as she dined at a Mexican restaurant in Washington.
The order says the Defense Department will assist DHS and the Health and Human Services Department, which are being stretched to the limit by the demands of housing the surging numbers of individuals who are being taken into custody.
At least 2,000 children have been separated from their parents under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy