Bowing to bipartisan and international pressure, U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at putting an end to the controversial separation of migrant families at the border, reversing a harsh practice that had earned widespread scorn.
"It's about keeping families together," Trump said at the signing ceremony.
"I did not like the sight of families being separated," he added.
It was a dramatic turnaround for Trump, who has been insisting, wrongly, that his administration had no choice but to separate families apprehended at the border because of federal law and a court decision.
Trump added, however, that the administration's "zero tolerance" prosecution policy would continue.
As it stands, the policy refers all undocumented adults for criminal prosecution -- a break with past administrations who limited criminal referral for most adults who illegally cross into the U.S. with their juvenile family members.
The children, who are not charged with a crime, had been separated as a result of their parents' criminal case. They were not allowed to be detained with their parents during legal proceedings.
The policy had led to a spike in family separations in recent weeks, with more than 2,300 minors were separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Though the order doesn't end the zero tolerance policy, it will aim to keep families together while they are in custody and ask the Department of Defense to help house the detained families.
Still, Trump's order is likely to create a new set of problems involving length of detention of families, and may spark a fresh court fight.
The news in recent days has been dominated by searing images of children held in cages at border facilities, as well as audio recordings of young children crying for their parents — images that have sparked fury, question of morality and concern from Republicans about a negative impact on their races in November's midterm elections.
The president's signing of the order is "a complete 180. Clearly the president is hearing the uproar from our communities," Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif said before Trump's decision.
Trump had tweeted earlier Wednesday, "It's the Democrats fault, they won't give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation. They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something - it never ends!"
Justice Department lawyers have been working to find a legal workaround for a class-action lawsuit settlement that set policies for the treatment and release of unaccompanied children who are caught at the border, or crafting an order that would defy the settlement and force it back into court to argue for changes.
Two people close to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said early Wednesday that she was the driving force behind the plan to keep families together after they are detained crossing the border illegally.
One of the people said Nielsen, who had become the face of the administration's policy, had little faith that Congress would act to fix the separation issue and felt compelled to act. Nielsen was heckled at a restaurant Tuesday evening and has faced protesters at her home.
But others pushed back on the idea that Homeland Security had led the rollback. One official said it was the Justice Department that generated the legal strategy that is codified in the executive order, and disputed the notion that Homeland Security was involved in drawing up the document.
Planning at the Justice Department had been underway over the past several days to provide the president with options on the growing crisis, said the official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the effort before its official announcement.
The person said Trump called the Justice Department Wednesday morning asking for the draft order. The official did not know what prompted Trump to change course.
The Flores settlement, named for a teenage girl who brought the case in the 1980s, requires the government to release children from custody and to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers, in order of preference. If those options are exhausted, authorities must find the "least restrictive" setting for the child who arrived without parents.
In 2015, a federal judge in Los Angeles expanded the terms of the settlement, ruling that it applies to children who are caught with their parents as well as to those who come to the U.S. alone. Other recent rulings, upheld on appeal, affirm the children's rights to a bond hearing and require better conditions at the Border Patrol's short-term holding facilities.
In 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that child migrants who came to the border with parents and were held in custody must be released. The decision did not state parents must be released. Neither, though, did it require parents to be kept in detention, apart from their children.
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