WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order ending his administration’s controversial policy of separating families at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“We are keeping families together,” the president said as he signed the order while seated at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. He was flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during the signing, and did not make reference to the actual text of the document.
He did, however, say the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration will continue.
The order directs the secretary of Homeland Security to keep alien families together during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings “to extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, involving their members.”
“The Secretary shall not, however, detain an alien family together when there is a concern that detention of an alien child with the child’s alien parent would pose a risk to the child’s welfare,” the order says.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Pentagon will “respond if requested” to house migrants detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
When a reporter noted that federal agencies have assessed four military bases for potential use as temporary housing for detained migrants, including unaccompanied children, Mattis said the Pentagon will “support whatever” the Department of Homeland Security says it needs. In the meantime, he said, this is not a matter for the Pentagon to comment on.
Despite the about face on separations, administration continues to maintain through the order that it will “rigorously enforce our immigration laws.
“Under our laws, the only legal way for an alien to enter this country is at a designated port of entry at an appropriate time,” it says. “When an alien enters or attempts to enter the country anywhere else, that alien has committed at least the crime of improper entry and is subject to a fine or imprisonment under section 1325(a) of title 8, United States Code.”
Consistent with the position the president has espoused in recent days, the order says “it is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”
The signing — a bit of theatrics as Trump could have rescinded the separation policy with a phone call — capped a hectic 24 hours for Trump and the officials who were enforcing the separation policy.
Later, during a briefing with reporters, Justice Department officials suggested the president’s executive order may not be a lasting solution to the immigration quandary after all.
According to Gene Hamilton, a senior Justice Department official, the precedent for holding children was established by the 1997 case, Flores v. Reno, the settlement of which states the government can only detain families together for “up to 20 days.”
And that, Hamilton said, puts the administration in an “untenable” situation. Trump’s executive order keeps families intact after the parents have been arrested for unlawfully crossing the border, but it also seeks to have families detained together through the full length of any court proceedings.
Since proceedings can drag on for months or even years, the executive order’s mandates will likely come into conflict with Flores time and again unless a court extends the settlement’s deadline.
Anastasia Tonello, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in a statement Wednesday night that the executive order “sidesteps” the family separation crisis and replaces it with a new one.
“Incarceration of families for prolonged periods of time is senseless, particularly when humane and cost effective alternatives to detention have been proven to be effective. The barriers to due process that [our organization’s] attorneys have encountered at every detention facility underscore what needs to happen: both family separation and family detention must end,” Tonello said.
And Sarah Pierce, an immigration policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. told Courthouse News Wednesday night the executive order might not even be constitutional.
“In the original Flores litigation, the plaintiffs claimed that the children had a due process right to be released to responsible adults,” she said. “That case settled, so we don’t have a final decision on that but it is likely be raised in again in light of the new order.”
As for what happens to children already separated from their families, Pierce said it is a question that begs repeating.
“There has been no statement or plan from the administration on how they intend to reunite the thousands of families who have been forcibly separated. Nothing in the President’s executive order today addressed the issue. And as they wait, more parents will be deported without their children.”
According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the Administration of Children Families, an offshoot of the Health and Human Services department, said the White House has opted not to grandfather existing separation cases.
Children who were taken from their families could remain with their new guardians for months or years – it hinges directly on how quickly immigration court proceedings are handled.
The Associated Press reported that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spent an entire day drafting the executive order for Trump to sign.
On Wednesday morning the president declared “we want to solve this immigration problem,” while also canceling a previously scheduled annual picnic for lawmakers because it didn’t “feel right” to hold the event with Washington embroiled in the immigration controversy.
“We’re looking to keep families together. Very important. We’re going to be signing an executive order,” he said. “We are also going to count on Congress, obviously, but we are signing an executive order in a little while. We’re going to keep families together but we still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for and that we don’t want.”
But even as he signaled a change in course is coming on the separation of migrant families, the president already appeared to be doing some damage control.
“So I’m going to be signing an executive order in a little while before I go to Minnesota but, at the same time, I think you have to understand, we’re keeping families together but we have to keep our borders strong. We will be overrun with crime and with people that should not be in our country,” he said.
The White House has been the focus of a sustained outcry and widespread condemnation in recent days over its policy of separating children from parents who illegally cross the border.
In response, the president repeatedly derided Democrats on Twitter, falsely asserting that congressional Democrats were to blame for the situation.
“It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something – it never ends!”
The president also slammed the media on Wednesday morning for their coverage of family separations at the border.
“The Fake News is not mentioning the safety and security of our Country when talking about illegal immigration,” he tweeted. “Our immigration laws are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world, and the Dems will do anything not to change them & to obstruct want open borders which means crime!”
American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero said Trump’s about-face on family separation wasn’t prompted by compassion but was the result of increasing scrutiny and negative backlash.
“Kids should not have been separated from their parents in the first place and they still don’t belong in jail. His alleged solution to a crisis of his own making is many months too late. It is a crisis that should not have happened to begin with. He has caused irreparable damage to thousands of immigrant families,” Romero said in a statement Wednesday.
“The devil is in the details. This crisis will not abate until each and every single child is reunited with his or her parent. An eleventh-hour executive order doesn’t fix the calamitous harm done to thousands of children and their parents. This executive order would replace one crisis for another. Children don’t belong in jail at all, even with their parents, under any set of circumstances. If the president thinks placing families in jail indefinitely is what people have been asking for, he is grossly mistaken.”
On Thursday, the House will take a vote on an immigration package that could allow for indefinite detention of migrant families. It it isn’t expected to curry much favor with Democrats and could force another showdown in the Senate.
The bill stipulates that the Department of Homeland Security hold adults charged with unlawfully crossing the border with a child under 18 at specific family detention centers.
But the House bill doesn’t spell out how long a minor child can be detained with their family.
Very little of the conversation around immigration policy in the U.S has focused on the impact that immigrants and refugees have on the nation’s economy.
In Europe, a study by the Paris School of Economics found that asylum seekers fleeing to Western Europe nations to escape war-ridden areas provide an economic boost to their host countries economies.
The study analyzed 30 years worth of economic and migration data.
While asylum seekers take longer than migrants to have a positive effect on host nations’ economies, they still positively affect the economies they enter by contributing more in tax revenues than they draw from public spending, the study said.
The report found that asylum seekers significantly increased per-capita gross domestic product, reduced unemployment and improved public finance balances.