By Maggie Haberman and Michael D. Shear
© 2018 New York Times News Service
President Donald Trump caved to enormous political pressure on Wednesday and signed an executive order that ends the separation of families by indefinitely detaining parents and children together at the border.
“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders but we are going to keep the families together,” Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
The order said that officials will continue to criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally, but will seek to find or build facilities that can hold families — parents and children together — instead of separating them while their legal cases are considered by the courts.
Trump’s executive order directed the government’s lawyers to ask for a modification of an existing 1997 consent decree, known as the Flores settlement, that currently prohibits the federal government from keeping children in immigration detention — even if they are with their parents — for more than 20 days.
But it is unclear whether the court will agree to that request. If not, the president is likely to face an immediate legal challenge from immigration activists on behalf of families that are detained in makeshift facilities.
Stories of children being taken from their parents and images of teenagers in cage-like detention facilities have exploded into a full-blown political crisis for Trump and Republican lawmakers, who are desperate for a response to critics who have called the practice “inhumane” and “evil.”
Trump has for weeks refused to simply end his government’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of more than 2,300 children from their parents, saying that the alternative would be to fling open the nation’s borders and allow immigrants who cross the border illegally to remain in the country.
Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, Trump vowed not to relent in his administration’s prosecution of people trying to enter the United States illegally.
“We are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero tolerance,” Trump said. “We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”
But he added: “The border’s just as tough, but we do want to keep families together.”