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President Donald Trump signs an executive order to keep families together at the border, but says that the 'zero-tolerance' prosecution policy will continue, during an event in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Standing behind Trump are Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bowing to pressure from anxious allies, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the U.S. border illegally.

It was a dramatic turnaround for Trump, who has been insisting, wrongly, that his administration had no choice but to separate families apprehended at the border because of federal law and a court decision.

The news in recent days has been dominated by searing images of children held in cages at border facilities, as well as audio recordings of young children crying for their parents—images that have sparked fury, question of morality and concern from Republicans about a negative impact on their races in November’s midterm elections.

Until Wednesday, the president, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other officials had repeatedly argued the only way to end the practice was for Congress to pass new legislation, while Democrats said he could do it with his signature alone. That’s what he did on Wednesday.

“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep the families together,” said Trump who said he didn't like the “sight” or “feeling” of children separated from their parents.

He said his order would not end the “zero-tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all adults caught crossing the border illegally. The order aims to keep families together while they are in custody, expedite their cases, and ask the Department of Defense to help house families.

Justice Department lawyers had been working to find a legal workaround for a previous class-action settlement that set policies for the treatment and release of unaccompanied children who are caught at the border.

Catholic leaders took to Twitter on Tuesday and Wednesday to speak out against the “zero tolerance” policy. 

“We are now a nation where #ZeroTolerance means no mercy,” tweeted Archbishop Jose Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles and the current vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “In the name of protecting our borders, we are willing to break up families & shatter the lives of innocent children.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich also tweeted out against the policy, calling it un-American and un-Christian. He quoted Pope Francis’ response to the policy, in which he sides with the U.S.C.C.B.’s official statement calling the policy “contrary to our Catholic values.” 

Still, Trump's order is likely to create a new set of problems involving length of detention of families, and may spark a fresh court fight.

Also playing a role in his turnaround: First lady Melania Trump. One White House official said Mrs. Trump had been making her opinion known to the president for some time that she felt he needed to do all he could to help families stay together, whether by working with Congress or acting on his own.

Nielsen traveled to Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon to brief lawmakers. And members on the fence over pending immigration legislation headed to the White House to meet with Trump.

Trump had tweeted earlier Wednesday, “It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation. They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something—it never ends!”

The administration recently put into place a “zero tolerance” policy in which all unlawful border crossings are referred for prosecution—a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the Obama administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.

The policy had led to a spike in family separations in recent weeks, with more than 2,300 minors were separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Two people close to Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen said early Wednesday that she was the driving force behind the plan to keep families together after they are detained crossing the border illegally.

One of the people said Nielsen, who had become the face of the administration’s policy, had little faith that Congress would act to fix the separation issue and felt compelled to act. Nielsen was heckled at a restaurant Tuesday evening and has faced protesters at her home.

But others pushed back on the idea that Homeland Security had led the rollback. One official said it was the Justice Department that generated the legal strategy that is codified in the working executive order, and disputed the notion that Homeland Security was involved in drawing up the document.
Planning at the Justice Department had been underway over the past several days to provide the president with options on the growing crisis, said the official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the effort before its official announcement.

The person said Trump called the Justice Department Wednesday morning asking for the draft order. The official did not know what prompted Trump to change course.

The Flores settlement, named for a teenage girl who brought the case in the 1980s, requires the government to release children from custody and to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers, in order of preference. If those options are exhausted, authorities must find the “least restrictive” setting for the child who arrived without parents.

In 2015, a federal judge in Los Angeles expanded the terms of the settlement, ruling that it applies to children who are caught with their parents as well as to those who come to the U.S. alone. Other recent rulings, upheld on appeal, affirm the children's rights to a bond hearing and require better conditions at the Border Patrol's short-term holding facilities.

In 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that child migrants who came to the border with parents and were held in custody must be released. The decision did not state parents must be released. Neither, though, did it require parents to be kept in detention, apart from their children.


Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas and Alan Fram contributed to this report.


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Stuart Meisenzahl
5 years 11 months ago

At last after a dozen inflammatory articles on this problem of the separation of families, America Magazine finally decides to point out that there are overriding legal imperatives based on a 20 year old consent decree ( The Flores Settlement) that has compelled the government to separate a parent accused of breaking the law from any child who might be with him at that point.
Up to this point America's Editors have just seen fit to avoid this superseding problem with all types of oral and written moral outrage. The outrage is justified but it does nothing to solve the problem.
The Flores Consent Decree Settlement by its terms was set to expire in 2002 ....PROVIDED Congress acted to fix the problem by legislation. The last time the 9th Circuit addressed the Flores Settlement in 2016 it noted archly that Congress had taken no action in 20 years and so the Court would continue to enforce its terms.....and promptly held that the Obama family detention centers violated the Consent decree ( Flores vs Lynch, 9th Cir July 2016)
We are about to see if the 9th Circuit judges strike down the executive order just signed by Trump. The odds are very very high that it will once again void any action except that taken by Congress in the form of permanent legislation.

Not withstanding this refreshing acknowledgement This Article insists none the less that President Trump "wrongly" insisted separation was compelled by Federal Law and Court decisions. The President was and is correct: If you enforce the Federal Immigration laws making it a criminal offense to illegally cross the border then "Flores" compels/requires you to separate the arrested parent from any accompanying child! The article "cop out" occurs in a totally misleading final sentence: "Nothing requires the parent to be detained." What nonsense!!!
In Flores Vs Lynch the District Court actually held that the parent MUST be released.......BUT on Appeal the 9th Circuit specifically reversed that part of the decision, tacitly acknowledging that to hold otherwise would be to void the Federal Law prohibiting illegal entry. What the last sentence of this article argues is that the Country should go back to "Catch and Release" under which over 90% of those released never showed up for their deportation hearing!!

Jim MacGregor
5 years 11 months ago

Well presented article spoiled only by the phony story about cages. Please adhere to facts.

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