WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump agreed to sign an executive order on Wednesday ending the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border with Mexico, after claiming for days that he did not have the authority to do so.
Trump reversed his policy after heavy criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, his own wife and daughter, and two-thirds of Americans, who strongly disapproved of the move in recent polling.
White House officials said that Trump would continue his “no tolerance” policy at the border and simply detain the families as a unit instead of pulling them apart. But the decision marks a meaningful shift, after top Trump administration officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, said they would keep their heads down and continue on with separations in an effort to “deter” other families from bringing their children to the border.
Until Wednesday, Trump claimed that Congress had the sole authority to end the child separation policy – by passing new legislation. No legislation was prepared as Trump relented, effectively admitting that his prior claim was false.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, as some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” Trump said on Wednesday, explaining his internal debate, “and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”
Videos of youngsters in cages and an audiotape of wailing children have sparked anger in the United States from groups ranging from clergy to influential business leaders, as well as condemnation from abroad, including Pope Francis.
The House of Representatives planned to vote on Thursday on two bills designed to halt the practice of separating families and to address other immigration issues.
But Republicans said they were uncertain if either measure would have enough support to be approved. Trump told House Republicans on Tuesday night he would support either of the immigration bills under consideration but did not give a preference.
Trump told members of Congress that first lady Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump urged him to reverse course, faced with the images and sounds of crying children locked behind metal fencing. Over 2,700 children have been isolated from their parents since October, pressuring capacity at facilities amid a crackdown by law enforcement officials.
Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser who is an advocate in the White House for women and families, has not spoken out publicly on the zero tolerance policy at the border which has separated hundreds of children from their parents or adult guardians.
The president's daughter offered thanks to Trump on Twitter after he signed the executive order.
"Thank you @POTUS for taking critical action ending family separation at our border," Ivanka wrote, referring to the acronym for president of the United States. "Congress must now act + find a lasting solution that is consistent with our shared values;the same values that so many come here seeking as they endeavor to create a better life for their families."
She came under fire late last month for a social media post with her young son, both in pajamas, cuddling in the days after the policy of separating children from their parents at the border came to light. In recent days, many have taken to social media to criticize Ivanka Trump for not speaking out publicly on the issue.
“I will say, with all of the numbers that you see, if we weren’t strong on the border you’d have hundreds of thousands of people pouring through the border,” Trump continued. “They’d just be pouring through, and the country would not be the country anymore.”
Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.