Even as images of children held in chain-link pens and audio of toddlers crying in detention facilities were broadcast Monday, the Trump Administration remained unapologetic, doubling down on its policy of separating parents and children apprehended at the border.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen delivered an unyielding performance in the White House briefing room on Monday, defending the family separation policy and calling on lawmakers to overturn the policy with a sweeping immigration overhaul.
“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” Nielsen said, in an awkward echo of Trump’s promise that “I alone can fix it” at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
For her part, Nielsen denied that the practice is designed to deter other families from attempting the dangerous illegal trek across the southwest border and said the separations are the result of loopholes in the law that need to be fixed.
But within hours, she was contradicted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who acknowledged in an interview on Fox News that prosecuting parents and separating them from their children is, in part, meant to send a signal to other would-be migrants.
“Yes, hopefully people will get the message,” Sessions said, “and come through the border at the port of entry and not [come] across the border unlawfully.”
Trump himself remained defiant on Monday, as he read a statement at the beginning of a speech in the White House to aerospace executives. Trump said the U.S. “will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. … Not on my watch.” And he continued to attempt to deflect blame for his own administration’s policy onto his political opponents, adding: “I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault.”
Trump appears willing to bear the heart-wrenching headlines, at least for now, in the hope they will create political pressure on lawmakers to give him an immigration overhaul he wants. In addition to funding Trump’s promise to build a border wall, the White House’s bill being considered in the House would give deportation officers more authority to remove people more quickly, curb legal immigration based on family ties and eliminate a diversity visa lottery. It would also create a way for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to apply for legal status in the U.S.
For the president, it was another example of his usual negotiating stance of building maximum leverage through escalating demands. In this case, however, he’s dealt his way into a moral crisis.
Evangelical leaders, four former first ladies and Republican lawmakers such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized the separations, which spiked after April 6 when Sessions announced that anyone caught crossing the border would be prosecuted for illegal entry in federal court. (That policy change is what led to the family separations, because when a parent is held by the U.S. Marshal’s Service pending a federal trial, their child is put in the separate custody of Health and Human Services.)
In addition, White House officials are betting that having a heated debate over border security during the summer and into the fall will motivate Trump’s supporters to turn out enthusiastically for Republicans in the mid-term elections.
There is polling evidence for that strategy. Republican voters back Trump’s policy of separating children from parents accused of entering the country illegally. A majority of Republicans — 58% — approve of the practice, according to a CNN poll conducted from June 14 to June 17 and released Monday. Similar numbers surfaced in polls by Quinnipiac and Ipsos.
But there was also good reason to worry about a backlash, as no other group that has been polled supports the policy, and by CNN’s count, two-thirds of Americans disapprove.