Washington: Confusion over President Donald Trump's order to allow migrant families to remain together after they illegally enter the United States led to a tense argument at the White House late Thursday as senior officials across the federal government clashed over how to carry it out, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
US President Donald Trump
The dispute continued Friday morning as Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, returned to the White House to hash out his agency's ability to detain families with children and refer all the adults for prosecution under the president's "zero tolerance" policy.
The bureaucratic clash threatened to undermine Trump as his administration scrambles to escape an escalating political crisis and heartbreaking images and audio recordings of migrant children separated from their parents and dispatched to government detention facilities.
It also echoed the chaos at American airports that Trump plunged the government into, days after taking office, with his ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries that surprised Border Patrol agents and State Department consular officials.
Officials at the southwest border are struggling to obey Trump's demand to prosecute people who illegally enter the United States — ending what the president has reviled as a "catch and release" policy — while also following an executive order he issued on Wednesday to keep migrant parents and their children together as they are processed in courts.
But as with the case of the travel ban, the reality of a vastly complicated bureaucratic system is colliding head-on with Trump's shoot-from-the-hip use of executive power.
President Donald Trump’s arms during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC.
The whiplash-inducing move caught several people by surprise. Just a day earlier, one person close to the president said, Trump told advisers that separating families at the border was the best deterrent to illegal immigration and said that "my people love it."
On Wednesday, Trump repeatedly changed his mind about precisely what he wanted to do, and how, according to people familiar with the discussions. The president vacillated about whether to do it until a short time before he signed the order, one person said.
Thursday night's meeting was held in the White House Situation Room and lasted at least 90 minutes, according to three people briefed on the discussion who described it on the condition of anonymity.
They said Customs and Border Protection officials argued forcefully that agents who are apprehending migrant families at the border cannot refer all the adults for prosecution because the Justice Department does not have the resources to accept all the cases.
A US Border Patrol agent watches as people who\’ve been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas.
As a result, the officials from Customs and Border Protection told White House and Justice Department officials that they have had to issue fewer prosecution referrals of adults with children despite the president's zero-tolerance policy.
Justice officials shot back, maintaining that the department has made no changes to its hard-line stance on illegal border crossings as it continues to receive referrals for prosecutions from Customs and Border Protection agents.
Government lawyers will "prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry," Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Thursday in a statement.
The Justice Department has been combating reports about its ability or willingness to enact the zero-tolerance policy. Rumours of case dismissals forced federal prosecutors to deny that they have dismissed immigration violation cases in South Texas.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, right, speaks while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, and Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan, look on.
"Media reports alleging SDTX cases were dropped or dismissed are inaccurate and misleading," the office said in its statement, referring to the Southern District of Texas. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent 35 prosecutors to the southwest border to help handle the surge in cases created by the zero-tolerance policy; the Defence Department deployed an additional 21 lawyers to handle immigration prosecutions.
Federal immigration courts faced a backlog of more than 700,000 cases in May, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University. In some courts, the average wait for an immigration hearing was over 1400 days; some hearings are being scheduled beyond 2021 before an available slot on the docket is found.
Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four military bases: Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas; Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas; Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas; and Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas.
It was not immediately clear Friday where the parents of children would go if they will no longer be separated from their families.
A woman walks pass a mural titled “Migration is not a game of hop scotch,” in San Salvador, El Salvador. For now the outrage caused by the policy of separating children from their parents is likely to deter more Central Americans from leaving home, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
For the past week, Trump has demanded changes in US immigration laws and encouraged Congress to act with urgency. But on Friday morning, he appeared to give up hope that the Republican-controlled Congress could succeed in passing an immigration bill this year, urging lawmakers in a Twitter post to stop "wasting their time."
His advice is likely to kill current efforts to pass a measure that had little chance of succeeding.
Instead, Trump said a vote on immigration legislation should be postponed until after the midterm elections in November, when he expects Republicans to pick up more seats and create a stronger majority — a prediction that is far from guaranteed.
But House Republicans are moving forward as planned with efforts to pass immigration legislation, said Represenative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority whip.
"I think the president's expressing his frustration that Democrats don't want to solve the problem while we do, and we're going to keep working to try to get it done," Scalise said.
He acknowledged that passing the bill would be an "uphill fight."
On Thursday, the House voted against a hard-line immigration measure and delayed a vote on a more moderate proposal, punting a decision on the bill to next week to give lawmakers more time to pick up support.
The proposal, negotiated by moderate and conservative Republicans, would provide a citizenship path for the young unauthorised immigrants known as Dreamers and keep migrant families together when they are stopped at the border. But without Trump's backing, the bill is essentially guaranteed to fail.
Speaker Paul Ryan had no immediate comment on Friday about the president's change of course.
Trump has falsely blamed Democrats for the policy of separating migrant parents from their children in federal custody. By asking Republicans to push off a vote until after the midterm elections, Trump is taking a risk: If Democrats take control of the House, they are unlikely to approve funding for building a wall along the southwest border with Mexico.
In abandoning the compromise bill and delaying a vote until after the elections, Trump risks losing $US23 billion in funding for border security included in the proposal, some of which would go toward building the wall.
Three hours after Trump told Republican lawmakers to give up on the bill, he tweeted about the critical need for strong border security:
"We must maintain a Strong Southern Border. We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections. Obama and others had the same pictures, and did nothing about it!"
Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, said the president has rejected immigration proposals even as he has shamed lawmakers to do their jobs.
New York Times
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