Trump Resisting a Growing Wrath for Separating Migrant Families

The White House is responding to criticism of its policy against illegal border crossings in four very distinct ways.

WASHINGTON — President Trump and two members of his cabinet mounted an aggressive defense on Monday of his policy of separating children from their parents at the border in response to a growing outcry from members of both parties.

“They could be murderers and thieves and so much else,” Mr. Trump said of the people crossing the border. “We want a safe country, and it starts with the borders, and that’s the way it is.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions also defended the practice, while insisting that “we do not want to separate parents from their children,” and later, at a tumultuous White House news briefing, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, gave a forceful explanation of the administration’s actions, arguing that it had no choice, and insisting that the only way the practice could end would be through congressional action.

Unlike Mr. Trump, she did not repeat the false accusation that only the Democrats, the minority party, were to blame for what she said was Congress’s failure to act to end a policy that, by some counts, has resulted in nearly 2,000 children taken away from their parents in a six-week period.

Ms. Nielsen insisted that the children who had been taken into custody were well cared for, but she was not able to answer several questions from reporters who demanded specifics about their whereabouts and care. She said she had not seen widely circulated footage of families penned behind chain-link cage fencing, nor heard audio taken of children wailing inside detention centers.

“Parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals,” Ms. Nielsen said. “By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.”

Initially, the criticism of what was occurring at the border came mainly from Democrats and former first ladies, including Laura Bush, whose husband also struggled with how to stop illegal immigration when he was president. On Monday, Michelle Obama and Rosalynn Carter both weighed in, with Mrs. Carter saying in a statement that “the practice and policy today of removing children from their parents’ care at our border with Mexico is disgraceful and a shame to our country.”

After Mr. Trump’s latest comments on Monday, a growing number of Republican lawmakers — including Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, who leads the House Republicans’ campaign arm — joined the chorus of criticism. Mr. Stivers warned that if the policy is not changed, he would support “means to stop unnecessary separation of children from their parents.”

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, called it an “ugly and inhumane practice,” and called for an immediate end to it, as did other Republican lawmakers, including Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, who called the practice “totally unacceptable.” And Representative Mia Love, Republican of Utah, whose parents emigrated from Haiti, issued a statement condemning what she called the administration’s “horrible” separation policy.

“As a mother of three children and daughter of immigrant parents, this is something that’s both very tangible and heartbreaking to me,” Ms. Love said. “This is not a partisan issue — it’s an issue of right or wrong.”

[Read about how President Trump wants to rally the Republican base over immigration.]

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump is scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to address House Republicans, who are planning to vote on two immigration measures this week. In a Twitter post, Mr. Trump repeated his running blame of Democratic policies — “CHANGE THE LAWS!”

But no law actually requires that families be separated at the border.

There is a law against “improper entry” at the border, as well as a consent decree known as the Flores settlement that limits to 20 days the amount of time that migrant children may be held in immigration detention. A 2008 anti-trafficking statute — signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush — also requires that certain unaccompanied minors be transferred out of immigration detention in 72 hours.

Credit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

None of those laws or precedents mean that children must be taken away from their parents.

Under President Barack Obama, the authorities initially responded to a similar surge in illegal border crossings by setting up family detention centers where children and their parents could be held together. But in response to a lawsuit against the Obama administration, a judge ruled that the Flores settlement also prohibited children from being detained with their parents.

Having no effective way to detain the parents with their children, Obama administration officials released the families pending the resolution of their asylum cases. Some were given ankle bracelets. Others were simply ordered to return for a court hearing. What they refused to do was to automatically split the children from their parents so that the adults could be detained.

Effectively, they made an exception for illegal immigrants who arrived with children — an exception that Trump administration officials followed until Mr. Sessions imposed a zero-tolerance policy this year.

Both the Flores settlement and the anti-trafficking law say that the authorities are permitted to separate children, but they are not required to do so. The Trump administration interpreted this as a requirement, or a “loophole,” that Congress must fix to stop the separations.

The energetic defense of the policy by Mr. Trump and members of his administration is at odds with the political reality on Capitol Hill, where Mr. Trump’s demands to change the laws face opposition from both Republicans and Democrats.

Members of both parties have responded with their own legislative proposals to deal with the separations.

The entire Senate Democratic caucus is backing a bill by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would limit family separations at the border. In the House, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, is expected to introduce a companion bill on Tuesday.

And on the Republican side, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said Monday that he will propose legislation to double the number of federal immigration judges and authorize new temporary shelters so that families can remain together while their cases are expedited through immigration courts. His fellow Texan, Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, also said he has a plan to improve the immigration court process.

The battle is most likely to play out on Thursday, when the House is expected to vote on the two immigration bills. The first bill, known as the Goodlatte bill after its chief sponsor, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, is a hard-line package that would impose strict curbs on legal immigration and beef up border security, while denying a path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

It has Mr. Trump’s backing and that of his administration — “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices,” Mr. Sessions said Monday. But it is almost certain to fail.

The real debate will be around the second bill, a compromise measure that is the product of weeks of negotiations between House conservatives and immigration moderates who are eager to secure the fate of the Dreamers, the young immigrants brought here as children who have been protected from deportation under an Obama-era initiative, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that Mr. Trump moved to end in September.

The bill’s passage is highly uncertain. It has the backing of Speaker Paul D. Ryan, but Democrats are expected to vote in lock step against it and conservatives are leery of the measure, which they call “amnesty.” And Mr. Trump sowed confusion on Capitol Hill late last week when he said at first that he did not support the compromise — only to be later contradicted by the White House, which said the president was confused.

So Mr. Trump’s comments to the House Republicans on Tuesday will be critical to the bill’s chances. The immigration hard-liners who are uneasy about it are unlikely to be swayed by arguments from Mr. Ryan or other Republican leaders; they want reassurance from Mr. Trump.

That said, many are likely to remain skittish even if Mr. Trump offers a full-throated endorsement. Republicans know from experience that the president is mercurial, and they do not want to vote for a bill that the Republican base will denounce as amnesty, only to watch the president change his mind.

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