President Trump’s attempt to blame Democrats for separating migrant families at the border is renewing a political uproar over immigration, an issue that has challenged Trump throughout his presidency and threatens to grow more heated as he imposes more restrictions to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
In April, more than 50,000 migrants were apprehended or otherwise deemed “inadmissible,” and administration officials have made clear that children will be separated from parents who enter the country illegally and are detained. The surge in illegal border crossings is expected to continue as the economy improves and warmer weather arrives.
“I keep imagining somebody taking my kids from me. My kids are 2 and 4 years old, and that’s the age of some of the children that have been separated from their parents at the border,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who is helping to organize a Thursday rally in San Antonio to highlight the issue. “When a lot of people hear the story, they get a similar reaction. They can’t imagine why this would be a standard government practice.”
Trump’s deflection offers a familiar playbook, critics of the administration’s policies say. In their view, Trump’s most recent comments are strategically similar to tactics he used when he ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and then insisted on hard-line measures in a bill to permanently protect “dreamers.”
“He used DACA kids as a bargaining chip, and it didn’t work,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. “So now he’s using vulnerable Central American families for his nativist agenda. It’s shameless.”
The situation threatens to reverse one of Trump’s proudest accomplishments: the sharp drop in illegal migration in the months after his November 2016 victory.
The recent uptick in numbers has left the president privately frustrated, and top administration officials have pursued numerous ways to crack down on increased migration at the border.
For instance, the administration worked with a handful of Southern states earlier this year to deploy National Guard troops to the border. The Justice Department has dispatched more attorneys and judges to the border, while the White House has ramped up its public-relations offensive, organizing recent roundtable events in both Washington and on Long Island to underscore Trump’s hard-line stance.
And perhaps most aggressively, the administration announced this month that the Department of Homeland Security will refer to Justice Department prosecutors all who crossed the border illegally, a move denounced by immigrant rights groups who say migrants coming to the border should be treated as asylum seekers.
The new zero-tolerance policy will almost certainly mean parents who arrive with children will be separated, because children cannot be detained in criminal jails. Those kids will then be deemed as unaccompanied minors, whom federal law requires to be placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
As he detailed the “zero-tolerance” policy during a pair of appearances May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stressed: “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
“My decision has been that anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in Senate testimony earlier this month. “If you’re a parent, or you’re a single person, or you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law.”
The new policy appears to be having immediate effects. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Richard Hudson, the deputy chief of the operations program at Customs and Border Protection, told lawmakers that between May 6 and May 19, 638 adults had been referred for prosecutions under the new “zero-tolerance” effort.
Those adults brought with them a total of 658 children, Hudson said, who would have been separated under the new initiative. A DHS official said Sunday that many of those families may have already reunited if the detained parent had already been released from jail. HHS and DHS have worked in tandem to reunite children with parents, according to the official.
The administration has also emphasized that migrants arriving between official ports of entry will be considered illegal entries and will subsequently be referred for prosecution, and families who seek asylum at a port of entry won’t be separated unless officials suspect smuggling is involved, the official said.
But Trump, whose campaign pledge centered on a border wall that Mexico would pay for, has made it clear he is far from satisfied that he has fulfilled his immigration pledges.
“Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS.”
The White House, in a statement late Sunday, rationalized Trump’s comments by arguing that Democrats’ refusal to close “loopholes” in immigration policy are causing the separation of families. Closing such loopholes, according to the White House, would allow families to be deported together to their home countries.
Some of the loopholes the White House has referred to in the past include a 2008 anti-trafficking law that prevents unaccompanied children from countries other than Canada or Mexico from being returned immediately and instead places them in HHS care while they wait for a hearing. Some of the children ultimately don’t appear for their hearings.
“Sadly, Democrats openly oppose simple fixes to federal law that would stop the illegal migrant crisis and end the magnet for unlawful migration,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
Trump’s Saturday tweet outlines a litany of demands he has made on Congress, which is controlled by Republicans. They include ending a visa lottery for people who hail from countries with lower levels of migration to the United States, as well as restricting family-based immigration laws so U.S. citizens could no longer sponsor relatives such as parents or siblings, or “chain migration.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, questioned Sunday whether some of the adult migrants who show up at the border with children are really their parents, citing human-trafficking concerns.
“We would have to address that,” Meadows said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But I think conservatives and moderates, Democrats and Republicans all agree that keeping a family together is the best strategy, and it’s something we need to address and will address.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also speaking on “Face the Nation,” advocated for tougher border security measures to send a “clear message” that illegal immigration to the United States would not be accepted.
“We have to understand a lot of these people that are crossing children are being trafficked here,” Rubio said. “They are being brought here by criminal groups that help guide them and often take advantage of them and brutalize them on the path toward the United States, and the ability to cross that border is a magnet that is drawing this behavior.”
The current intraparty fight among House Republicans has largely focused on a citizenship path for “dreamers,” prompted by a coalition of frustrated moderate GOP lawmakers who have long pressed their leadership for action on the issue.
But a showdown over border security in earnest is likely to return later this year, when funding for the federal government runs dry at the end of September. Trump has already threatened to shut down the government if he doesn’t get more money for a border wall, a demand Democrats are already — and again — preparing to fight.
“The law does not require this inhumane and immoral action - DHS could stop it today. We do not need a law. This is a punt. They literally just ran this bad-faith play with DACA,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted Sunday. “They are going to use the suffering of children as political leverage for the wall, and we must refuse to participate, because if this kind of hostage taking is ever successful it will never stop.”