(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he ordered federal agencies to reunite immigrant families separated by his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward people caught illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump issued the order Thursday as he continued to retreat from a policy that has engendered public outrage and that his administration has stumbled trying to defend. First Lady Melania Trump went to the Texas border on Thursday, accompanied by journalists, to visit immigrant children on a trip her staff said she planned herself.
Trump announced the family reunification directive to the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Justice during a cabinet meeting.
“I’m directing HHS, DHS, DOJ to work together to keep illegal immigrant families together during the immigration process and reunite these previously separated groups,”’ Trump said.
The White House didn’t immediately provide further details on the directive.
The first lady told staff at a detention facility for children in McAllen, Texas, that she wants to know “how I can help” to return children to their families “as quickly as possible.”
A bipartisan group of 19 U.S. mayors were turned away from an attempt to inspect conditions at another Texas facility holding immigrant children separated from their parents, according to a spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was among them. De Blasio said in a CNN interview outside the facility that the mayors “are saying in unison this policy has to stop.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to demand that he disclose how many immigrant children have been sent to New York state to be housed in detention centers or foster care. Earlier this week, Cuomo said at least 345 children had been moved to New York, and that he would sue the U.S. government over the policy.
Trump first reversed course on his family separation policy on Wednesday, ordering Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain immigrant families together when they are apprehended.
Two-thirds of Americans have said in polls they oppose splitting apart families caught crossing the border, though a majority of Republicans say they support the president’s approach.
Still, with Trump pledging to maintain his “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults apprehended illegally crossing the border, he may not be able to detain families together for long without congressional action.
Implementing the directive hinges in part on whether U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles agrees to amend a 21-year-old agreement -- known as the Flores settlement -- that restricts the government’s handling of undocumented minors. The settlement prohibits authorities from detaining immigrant children for more than 20 days, even with their parents.
Gee declined to waive the settlement for the Obama administration in 2015 when it faced an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
An attempt by House Republicans to end family separations as part of broader immigration legislation faltered on Thursday. One version of the legislation was voted down and a vote was delayed on an alternative measure amid doubts that it had enough support for passage. Trump himself undercut a separate move in the Senate to write a narrowly focused bill to halt family separations by rejecting the idea of hiring more immigration judges, a component of two Republican proposals.
The sense of urgency in the Senate for stand-alone legislation to stop children being taken from their parents dissipated after Trump’s executive order, and lawmakers now suggest the process will be slowed down to develop a bipartisan solution.
“I think we ought to let it settle in a little bit, see where we are and then maybe hold some hearings in the Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction on immigration,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told reporters after leaving a meeting on potential legislation among a small group of senators from both parties.
Two Republican-drafted bills that address the family separations include authorization for adding immigration judges so that cases can be processed more quickly.
But the president said in a tweet Thursday: “We shouldn’t be hiring judges by the thousands, as our ridiculous immigration laws demand, we should be changing our laws, building the Wall, hire Border Agents.”
Trump’s executive order to end family separations assigned no deadline for DHS to set up a system to detain immigrant families together on military bases. The order was also silent on when or how children already taken from their parents would be reunited with them, or whether there is a limit on how long detained families can be held going forward. In the meantime, the administration will continue Trump’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally.
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