By ANDREW RESTUCCIA and LORRAINE WOELLERT
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that ends the administration’s policy of separating migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, abandoning the president’s previous stance that only Congress can fix the problem.
“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office, flanked by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.”
Yet Trump said that he wanted to continue enforcing a strong policy at the border, an issue he campaigned on: “We are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”
And the president continued to say that the underlying issue remains one for Congress to fix, titling the document an “executive order affording Congress an opportunity to address family separation.”
Administration officials also said that children who have already been separated from their parents won’t immediately be reunited, even if the parents remain in federal custody.
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“For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual,” Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families, told POLITICO on Wednesday evening.
Another spokesman later said Wolfe had misspoken.
“It is still very early and we are awaiting guidance,” Brian Marriott, the HHS division’s senior director of communications, said in a statement. “Our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors … and reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program.
“Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs“ — unaccompanied alien children — “and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody.”
The executive order came after Trump and his team faced harsh criticism from lawmakers, activists, religious leaders and former first ladies over the separation of children from their parents in custody, which was panned almost universally as cruel and damaging to the kids’ well-being.
It was a remarkable shift from a president who is typically reluctant to bow to outside pressure. He often doubles down on his existing stance when confronted with criticism.
With cable news flashing images of migrant children held in cages and lawmakers’ offices facing a flood of angry phone calls, the president was under increased pressure to come up with a speedy solution. White House aides came to the conclusion on Wednesday that Congress was unlikely to act quickly to resolve the crisis, even though they sent signals that Trump would be willing to sign a narrow, stand-alone fix without other immigration-related provisions.
The decision to end the separation policy via executive action appeared to have happened quickly, and some in the White House were left in the dark. Key members of the White House legislative affairs team, which had been working with Hill lawmakers in a bid to find a legislative fix, were left out of the loop and hadn’t seen text of the executive action as of early Wednesday afternoon, according to two people familiar with the issue.
Nielsen and Justice Department officials went to the White House Wednesday morning to work with administration lawyers to draft the order. The action will direct the Department of Homeland Security to keep families together and will instruct the Department of Defense to help house the families because many of the detention centers are at capacity, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was slated to go to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to brief lawmakers on the administration’s plans.
Trump and his top aides, led by Nielsen, have been saying that the law requires them to separate children from parents who were being prosecuted for crossing the border illegally.
Nielsen and Trump repeatedly tried to blame Democrats for the situation at the border, saying that nothing could be done without a legislative resolution. But the separations were the direct result of a DOJ decision in April to prosecute border-crossers as criminals — a change Sessions described as “zero-tolerance.” The separation policy has been applied to most families detained at the border, with children handed over to federal welfare agencies after their parents are taken into custody by U.S. marshals.
A graphic on border families.