Under growing pressure from lawmakers in both parties, President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that would allow illegal immigrant families detained by U.S. border authorities to remain together in many situations, ending an outcry over forced separations which took young children from their parents.
"I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated," the President told reporters in the Oval Office, as he signed the new plan, which was drawn up as more and more Republicans publicly said Mr. Trump's border crackdown had become a PR nightmare.
"The border is just as tough, but we do want to keep families together," the President told reporters, as he repeatedly emphasized that an early May "zero tolerance" prosecution policy for those caught crossing the border illegally would continue.
It was that Trump Administration change which resulted in families being separated in recent weeks, spurring multiple news stories about young children, taken hundreds of miles away from their parents.
The signing represented a rare retreat for the President on any controversial policy during his administration; in recent days, top officials had repeatedly said there was no requirement that families be separated, but under current federal law, that option was triggered when parents of the kids were prosecuted, under the 'zero tolerance' plan.
"We have to have strong borders, and ultimately it will be done right," the President declared.
Mr. Trump had tried in recent days to place the blame on Democrats in Congress, saying his hands were tied on the matter of family separations, as top officials said the law left them no leeway for change.
"What about executive action?" the President was asked during an impromptu press conference with reporters on the White House driveway last Friday.
"You can't do it through an executive order," Mr. Trump replied.
But that's what he ultimately did.
Here is the text of the Executive Order, as provided by the White House:
Section 1. Policy. It is the policy of this Administration to rigorously enforce our immigration laws. Under our laws, the only legal way for an alien to enter this country is at a designated port of entry at an appropriate time. When an alien enters or attempts to enter the country anywhere else, that alien has committed at least the crime of improper entry and is subject to a fine or imprisonment under section 1325(a) of title 8, United States Code. This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the INA until and unless Congress directs otherwise. It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. It is unfortunate that Congress's failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.
Sec. 2. Definitions. For purposes of this order, the following definitions apply:
(a) "Alien family" means
(i) any person not a citizen or national of the United States who has not been admitted into, or is not authorized to enter or remain in, the United States, who entered this country with an alien child or alien children at or between designated ports of entry and who was detained; and
(ii) that person's alien child or alien children.
(b) "Alien child" means any person not a citizen or national of the United States who
(i) has not been admitted into, or is not authorized to enter or remain in, the United States;
(ii) is under the age of 18; and
(iii) has a legal parent-child relationship to an alien who entered the United States with the alien child at or between designated ports of entry and who was detained.
Sec. 3. Temporary Detention Policy for Families Entering this Country Illegally. (a) The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary), shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.
(b) The Secretary shall not, however, detain an alien family together when there is a concern that detention of an alien child with the child's alien parent would pose a risk to the child's welfare.
(c) The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary, upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law. The Secretary, to the extent permitted by law, shall be responsible for reimbursement for the use of these facilities.
(d) Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes. The Secretary, to the extent permitted by law, shall be responsible for reimbursement for the use of these facilities.
(e) The Attorney General shall promptly file a request with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to modify the Settlement Agreement in Flores v. Sessions, CV 85-4544 ("Flores settlement"), in a manner that would permit the Secretary, under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.
Sec. 4. Prioritization of Immigration Proceedings Involving Alien Families. The Attorney General shall, to the extent practicable, prioritize the adjudication of cases involving detained families.
Sec. 5. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This order shall be implemented in a manner consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
DONALD J. TRUMP
The President's move came amid a growing firestorm of criticism in Congress from members of both parties in the Congress, stirred by stories of young children taken away from their parents.
"This must stop NOW," tweeted Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), as he noted a story from his home state, where an 8-month old baby had been brought, after being taken from her parents.
"He can sign an executive order today," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was blocked on Tuesday from visiting a group of detained children at a federal facility in Homestead, Florida.
"This shameful chapter in American history lies with the President and his pen," Nelson said, arguing the President started these separations, and should halt them.
"We must stop the madness, and stop it now," said Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
"America is weakened in the eyes of the world," added Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA).
"This is a policy straight from the pit of hell," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA).
GOP leaders also made clear they wanted the Trump Administration to change course.
"As I said last week, we do not want children taken away from their parents," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, as he urged GOP lawmakers to unite behind a pair of immigration bills which are expected to be voted on Thursday.
But while the Speaker and other Republicans said provisions in those bills would fix the family separation matter - those plans would not advance through the Senate - making it unlikely that Congress could anything done on the family separation matter.
That left the President with just one option - an administrative reversal on something that he had fiercely stood behind the effort.
The change on illegal immigrant families came in early May, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy dealing with those illegally coming over the southern border.
"Today we are here to send a message to the world: we are not going to let this country be overwhelmed," Sessions said in that May 7 speech.