Washington, Jun 21 (AP/UNB)— Bowing to pressure from anxious allies, President Donald Trump abruptly reversed himself Wednesday and signed an executive order halting his administration's policy of separating children from their parents when they are detained illegally crossing the U.S. border.
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.
The order does not end the "zero-tolerance" policy that criminally prosecutes all adults caught crossing the border illegally. But, at least for the next few weeks, it would keep families together while they are in custody, expedite their cases and ask the Defense Department to help house them. It also doesn't change anything yet for the some 2,300 children taken from their families since the policy was put into place.
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, questions of morality and concern from Republicans about a negative impact on their races in November's midterm elections.
Until Wednesday, the president, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other officials had repeatedly argued the only way to end the practice was for Congress to pass new legislation, while Democrats said Trump could do it with his signature alone. That's just what he did.
"We're going to have strong, very strong borders, but we're going to keep the families together," said Trump, who added that he didn't like the "sight" or "feeling" of children separated from their parents.
Under a previous class-action settlement that set policies for the treatment and release of minors caught at the border, families can only be detained for 20 days. A senior Justice Department official said that hasn't changed.
"This is a stopgap measure," said Gene Hamilton, counsel to the attorney general. Justice lawyers were planning to file a challenge to the agreement, known as the Flores settlement, asking that a judge allow for the detention of families until criminal and removal proceedings are completed.
So Trump's order is likely to create a fresh set of problems and may well spark a new court fight. It's unclear what happens if no changes to law or the settlement take place by the time families reach the detainment deadline. The language also leaves room to separate children from parents if it's best for the child's welfare.
And it didn't do much for the teeming outrage over the issue. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center said the order didn't go nearly far enough.
"The administration still plans to criminalize families — including children — by holding them in prison-like detention facilities. There are workable alternatives," president Richard Cohen said in a statement.
It's also unclear what will happen to the children already separated. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said his department will start reuniting detained immigrant children with their parents — but he made no specific commitment on how quickly that can be accomplished. And officials said the cases of the children already separated and turned over to their custody would proceed as usual.
Trump's family apparently played a role in his turnaround.
A White House official said first lady Melania Trump had been making her opinion known to the president for some time that she felt he needed to do all he could to help families stay together, whether by working with Congress or acting on his own.
And daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted, "Thank you @POTUS for taking critical action ending family separation at our border."
Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday, and those on the fence over pending immigration legislation headed to the White House to meet with Trump. Assessments for possible detention facilities at military bases have already been done in Texas and another is expected in Arkansas on Thursday.
Two people close to Nielsen said she was the driving force behind the turnabout that led to the new order keeping families together. Those people were not authorized to speak publicly and commented only on condition of anonymity.
One of them 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. She was heckled at a restaurant Tuesday evening and has faced protesters at her home.
Trump had tweeted early Wednesday, before issuing his order: "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!"
The "zero tolerance" policy put into place last month moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The policy had led to a spike in family separations in recent weeks, with more than 2,300 minors separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to Homeland Security.
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 a child who arrived without parents.
Peter Schey, class-appointed counsel in the Flores case, said Wednesday there was nothing in the agreement that prevents Homeland Security officials from detaining children with their parents, "as long as the conditions of detention are humane and the child remains eligible for release, unless the child is a flight risk, or a danger to herself or others, or the child's parent does not wish the child to be released."
He said he was looking into whether the court could block deportation of parents until they have been reunited with their children, and whether it could force the Trump administration to reunite those separated.
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.
Washington, May 23 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump labored with South Korea's Moon Jae-in Tuesday to keep the highly anticipated U.S. summit with North Korea on track after Trump abruptly cast doubt that the June 12 meeting would come off. Setting the stakes sky high, Moon said, "The fate and the future of the Korean Peninsula hinge" on the meeting.
The summit, planned for Singapore, offers a historic chance for peace on the peninsula — but also the risk of an epic diplomatic failure that would allow the North to revive and advance its nuclear weapons program.
Trump's newfound hesitation appeared to reflect recent setbacks in efforts to bring about reconciliation between the two Koreas, as well as concern whether the self-proclaimed dealmaker can deliver a nuclear accord with the North's Kim Jong Un.
In an extraordinary public airing of growing uncertainty, Trump said "there's a very substantial chance" the meeting won't happen as scheduled.
Seated in the Oval Office with Moon, Trump said Kim had not met unspecified "conditions" for the summit. However, the president also said he believed Kim was "serious" about negotiations, and Moon expressed "every confidence" in Trump's ability to hold the summit and bring about peace.
"I have no doubt that you will be able to ... accomplish a historic feat that no one had been able to achieve in the decades past," Moon said.
U.S. officials said preparations for the summit were still underway despite recent pessimism — and privately suggested there would be additional public maneuvering as both sides seek to maximize their leverage. Both parties to the talks are invested in holding the meeting, with Kim seeing an opportunity for international legitimacy and Trump the prospect of securing Korean stability — and perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize.
"This could be something that comes right to the end and doesn't happen," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But he added that as of now, "we're driving on." South Korea's national security adviser put the chance of the summit taking place at 99.9 percent.
Trump suggested that it could be delayed rather than canceled: "It may not work out for June 12, but there is a good chance that we'll have the meeting."
He did not detail the conditions he had laid out for Kim but said if they aren't met, "we won't have the meeting." Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump was referring to a commitment to seriously discuss denuclearization.
Skepticism about the North's intentions have mounted in recent weeks after Kim's government pulled out of planned peace talks with the South last week, objecting to long-scheduled joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces. The North also threatened to abandon the planned Trump-Kim meeting over U.S. insistence on rapidly denuclearizing the peninsula, issuing a harshly worded statement that the White House dismissed as a negotiating ploy.
Moon sought to project optimism after his meeting with Trump. His spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, told reporters that the two leaders agreed to do their best to ensure the meeting happens on June 12. Yoon said Moon told Trump that the North Korean leader was strongly committed to the meeting and the leaders agreed that any assistance to North Korea would come after complete denuclearization. High-level talks between the North and South would likely happen after June 25.
Trump expressed suspicion that the North's recent aggressive barbs were influenced by Kim's unannounced trip to China two weeks ago — his second in as many months. Trump said he'd noticed "a little change" in Kim's attitude after the trip.
"I don't like that," he said.
The president added that he hoped Chinese President Xi Jinping was actually committed to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, calling him a "world-class poker player." Trump said he was displeased by China's softening of border enforcement measures against North Korea.
Trump encouraged Kim to focus on the opportunities offered by the meeting and to make a deal to abandon his nuclear program, pledging not only to guarantee Kim's personal security but also predicting an economic revitalization for the North.
"I will guarantee his safety, yes," Trump said, noting that promise was conditioned on an agreement to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Trump said if such an agreement is reached, China, Japan and South Korea would invest large sums to "make North Korea great."
In North Korea itself, foreign journalists arrived to watch the dismantling of a nuclear test site this week in a significant concession before the Trump talks.
However, fresh questions were raised Tuesday about the North's goals and motives, with the disclosure of a Pentagon report to Congress saying that nuclear weapons are central to North Korea's strategic goal of ensuring the perpetual rule of the Kim family dynasty. The report on North Korea's military capabilities was based on an assessment of developments in 2017 and was provided to Congress in April. It was posted online by an anti-secrecy group.
Ahead of the North Korea meeting, the president has been almost singularly focused on the pageantry of the summit —including the suspenseful roll-out of details, senior administration officials said. The White House turned heads this week with the release of a commemorative "challenge coin" for the summit, featuring profile engravings of Trump and Kim for the "peace talks." The White House said the coins were prepared by the White House Communications Agency, a military unit supporting the president's trip, and not the West Wing.
Trump has not been deeply engaged in briefing materials on North Korea's nuclear program, according to three people with knowledge of the White House efforts. They were not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump said the long-term status of the peninsula will be up to the North and South, and that the immediate goal for his summit is "two successful Koreas."
He added that, "Ultimately, maybe someday in the future" you'll "go back to one Korea."
The two Koreas both seek reunification of the divided Korean Peninsula on their own terms. But any move toward reunification would first likely require a peace settlement to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, which the two Koreas say they are aiming for.