WASHINGTON — Undaunted and unapologetic, President Donald Trump defended his administration’s border-protection policies Monday in the face of rising national outrage over the forced separation of migrant children from their parents. Tough action is needed to fight illegal immigration, he declared and the U.S. “will not be a migrant camp” on his watch.
Besides, the Democrats are to blame, not him, Trump insisted as images of children held in fenced cages fueled a growing chorus of condemnation from both political parties, four former first ladies and national evangelical leaders. The children are being held separately from parents who have been arrested under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings.
“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said Monday, citing more lenient policies that had not charged all migrants who had crossed illegally. Republican lawmakers are growing ever more concerned about negative effects on their re-election campaigns this fall, and Trump was to travel to Capitol Hill Tuesday for a strategy session on possible legislation.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the family separation issue, language curbing the taking of immigrant children from parents held in custody will be added to the House’s conservative immigration bill, one House GOP aide said Monday, A similar provision is already in a compromise GOP immigration measure between party conservatives and moderates, with the House expected to vote on both late this week.
The administration is hoping to force Democrats to vote for the bills or bear some of the political cost in November’s midterm elections.
In the meantime, the administration says it doesn’t like the family separations either but migrants who arrive illegally simply won’t be released or loosely kept track of.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” he declared. “Not on my watch.”
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new “zero-tolerance” policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. Prior procedure had limited prosecution for many family entrants, in part because regulations prohibit detaining children with their parents since the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen rejected criticism accusing her department of inhuman and immoral actions.
“We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” she said in an appearance before the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans. “Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards.”
The policy change was meant to deter unlawful crossings — and Sessions issued a warning last month to those entering the U.S. illegally that their children “inevitably for a period of time might be in different conditions.”
The current holding areas have drawn widespread attention after journalists gained access to one site Sunday. At a McAllen, Texas, detention center hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.
Sessions, on Monday, echoed the administration’s defense of the policy, and called on Congress to act.
“We do not want to separate parents from their children,” he said. “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices.”
White House officials have privately embraced the policy as negotiating tactic to win votes for legislation to fulfil the president’s pledge to build a border wall and to tighten the nation’s immigration laws.
Trump’s commitment to the current policy showed no sign of faltering as voices of outrage and condemnation grew louder and more diverse.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, a longtime Trump ally, called the policy “disgraceful.” Several religious groups, including some conservative ones, have pushed to stop the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents, and former first lady Laura Bush called it “cruel” and “immoral.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans joined Democrats in calling for an end to the separations. Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton called for an immediate end to this “ugly and inhumane practice,” adding, “It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process.” And Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts said he is “against using parental separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration.”
AP writers Alan Fram, Ken Thomas, Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey in Washington and Nomaan Merchant in McAllen, Texas, contributed.