President Trump has calculated that he will gain political leverage in congressional negotiations by continuing to enforce a policy he claims to hate — separating immigrant parents from their young children at the southern border, according to White House officials.
Trump’s public acknowledgment that he was willing to let the policy continue as he pursued his political goals came as the president once again blamed Democrats for a policy enacted and touted by his own administration.
“The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda,” he tweeted. After listing his demands in any immigration bill, he added, “Go for it! WIN!”
The attempt to gain advantage from a practice the American Academy of Pediatrics describes as causing children “irreparable harm” sets up a high-stakes gambit for Trump, whose political career has long benefited from harsh rhetoric on immigration.
Democrats have latched onto the issue and vowed to fight in the court of public opinion, with leaders planning trips to the border to highlight the stories of separated families, already the focus of news media attention. Democratic candidates running for vulnerable Republican seats also have begun to make the harsh treatment of children a centerpiece of their campaigns.
The policy has cracked Trump’s usually united conservative base, with a wide array of religious leaders and groups denouncing it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention issued statements critical of the practice.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who delivered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration, signed a letter calling the practice “horrible.” Pastor Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse, a vocal supporter of the president’s who has brushed aside past Trump controversies, called it “terrible” and “disgraceful.”
Besides increasing the odds of a broader immigration bill, senior Trump strategists believe that the child separation policy will deter the flow of migrant families across the border. Nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from parents during six weeks in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The figure is the only one released by the goverment.
“The president has told folks that in lieu of the laws being fixed, he wants to use the enforcement mechanisms that we have,” a White House official said. “The thinking in the building is to force people to the table.”
Trump reinforced that notion Friday morning at the White House when he suggested Democrats alone had the power to alter the policy.
“I hate the children being taken away,” Trump said.
The president used a similar strategy last year as he sought to gain approval for his immigration demands by using the lure of protection for young immigrants brought to the United States as children. That effort, which ran counter to Trump’s earlier promise to sign a bipartisan bill protecting the young immigrants, foundered in Congress.
Democratic and Republican strategists believe the odds of passing a broad new immigration law — this one ending the family separation policy — remain slim.
House Republican leaders nonetheless have been trying to broker the compromise between moderate and conservative GOP lawmakers that would encourage families to be kept together, while also providing funding for a new border wall, a path to citizenship for the young immigrants brought to the country as minors, and new limits on legal immigration.
The White House told lawmakers Friday that Trump would sign the bill if it passes.
Some Republican immigration hard-liners, however, continue to hold out, saying they will not support any path to citizenship and do not support any accommodations to keep families together. “I don’t see a reason to spend the money doing that,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in an interview Friday. “And I don’t see how you do that without having a suite for every self-described family unit.”
If Republicans come together, the bill would need to attract Democratic support to pass the Senate. “They’re claiming it addressed separations, but clearly, when you put that in a bill that funds a wall and won’t get Democratic votes, they don’t have a serious plan,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “They never expected the bill to pass.”
Democratic House aides said there were no negotiations Friday on a possible bipartisan compromise. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill in the Senate focused narrowly on ending the child separations, but it has not yet attracted any Republican support.
“On the legislative side, they are not trying to talk to any Democrats,” said Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “They are holding the kids hostage.”
The current policy resulted from a decision made in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute all migrants who cross the border, including those with young children. Those migrants had avoided detention during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Because of a 1997 court settlement that bars children from being imprisoned with parents, Justice Department officials now say they have no choice but to isolate the children.
Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have defended the policy as a sound, and biblical, decision to enforce the law.
“The previous administration wouldn’t prosecute illegal aliens who entered the country with children,” Sessions said Thursday in Fort Wayne, Ind., citing biblical advice to follow laws. “It was de facto open borders.”
The biblical underpinnings have been challenged by religious leaders.
“There’s definitely a groundswell of opposition from virtually every corner of the Christian community,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “People are able to understand immediately the drive of parents to protect their child and to understand the horror of splitting up vulnerable children from their parents.”
Yet several key Trump administration officials support the family separation policy, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior adviser Stephen Miller, a vocal supporter of stricter immigration laws.
Some senior officials think Democrats will be pressured by the policy to cut an immigration deal.
“If they aren’t going to cooperate, we are going to look to utilize the laws as hard as we can,” said a second White House official.
Others have argued that the main benefit of the policy is deterrence. Miller has said internally that the child separations will bring the numbers down at the border, a goal that Trump wants to achieve. Miller and Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, have argued that immigration legislation is unlikely to pass this summer, officials said.
“The side effect of zero tolerance is that fewer people will come up illegally, and fewer minors would be put in danger,” said a third senior administration official. “What is more dangerous to a minor, the 4,000-mile journey to America or the short-term detention of their parents?”
Democrats have been incorporating the plight of the separated children in their midterm election campaigns.
Pelosi will join members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a Monday visit to the Southern California border, where she plans to talk to parents who have been separated from their children. Several other lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Democratic midterm effort, plan to visit the border city of Brownsville, Tex., on Sunday to highlight the concerns.
Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), visited a detention center Tuesday, later describing in a Facebook video the concerns of a mother he met who was about to be separated from her 7-year-old daughter. The video had been viewed 40,000 times by Friday.
Democratic candidate Josh Harder held a protest Thursday over the separation policy at the Modesto, Calif., offices of Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the leaders of the House effort to craft a Republican compromise bill. “These stories are horrifying,” Harder said. “It’s deeply impactful in a district like ours, where we are 40 percent Latino.”
In response to the rally, Denham released a statement to The Washington Post expressing optimism that the Republican House bill would end the practice.
“We are fixing family separation within this bill and have made changes to keep children with at least one of their parents,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the period during which nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from their parents. It was over six weeks, not two weeks.
Seung-Min Kim and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.