WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump faced a growing backlash Monday over his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that since April has separated at least 2,000 children from their parents crossing the southern border, even as he continued to falsely blame Democrats for the hard-line actions.
Some Republican allies in Congress, religious leaders and former first lady Laura Bush joined a chorus of critics lambasting the policy as inhumane and immoral after a Father’s Day weekend of 24-hour media coverage featuring images of children locked inside large metal cages, crying toddlers and heart-wrenching stories of families forced apart.
Trump is set to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday on pending immigration bills, which now have become possible vehicles for addressing the border plight. Yet the president, despite his claims that Congress must act, has the power to reverse a policy his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced in April and reinforced as recently as Thursday in Indiana, citing a Bible passage as justification.
As the Republican-controlled Congress nonetheless comes under pressure to act, it remains to be seen if the growing outrage over the policy will move a president known for his stubbornness and indifference to the country’s foundational values of inclusiveness. He has indicated in multiple tweets over recent days that he is using the policy, which he, too, claims to hate, as leverage to get Democrats to agree to limits on legal immigration as well as $25 billion for his promised border wall.
On Monday morning, in a series of tweets, Trump shifted a bit from blaming Democrats to implicitly defending the policy by pointing at Europe, claiming in one that Germany’s openness to refugees had weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition — again breaking with the long-standing norm that world leaders stay out of the domestic politics of their ally-counterparts.
“Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” he wrote.
In a nod to his own domestic politics, Trump also tweeted, “Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws?” That was followed by another, “CHANGE THE LAWS!”
Even as he wrote, a Republican senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, posted a counterattack on Facebook challenging the president’s claim of impotence and calling the administration policy “cruel.”
“The administration’s decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice. Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong,” Sasse wrote.
“Some in the administration have decided that this cruel policy increases their legislative leverage. This is wrong. Americans do not take children hostage, period.”
Even so, Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration is in keeping with the promises that defined and helped propel his unlikely bid for the presidency from the start three years ago.
As president, he has pushed for stepped up enforcement efforts and the border wall, justifying it all by focusing on the violent crimes of immigrants, in particular MS-13 gang members with roots in El Salvador. He has ended an Obama-era policy temporarily protecting from deportation numerous young people who were brought to the country illegally as children — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA — though courts have blocked full repeal.
Not until recent days, as the news media and Democrats drew attention to the family separations, has his stand provoked a possible political crisis for him and Republicans.
Trump advisors including Kellyanne Conway over the weekend echoed Trump’s blame for Democrats, as part of the effort to pressure Democrats to concede on the border wall funding and legal immigration limits. Others, including Sessions and senior White House advisor Stephen Miller, have acknowledged that the administration imposed the zero-tolerance policy, after considering it since last year, in the belief that its harshness would serve as a deterrent for migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
Reflecting the administration’s new defensiveness, Homeland Security Secretary Kjersten Nielsen falsely claimed in a tweet on Sunday that the administration “(does) not have a policy of separating families at the border.”
On Monday, Nielsen said the administration would not apologize for following what she said was the law, in comments at the National Sheriffs’ Association annual conference in New Orleans. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “there are some who would like us to look the other way… and not enforce the law.”
Nielsen insisted that children are being treated humanely and blamed the detention controversy on would-be immigrants’ abuse of the asylum system. Some adults, she said, were using children as a “get out of jail free card” because federal law limits the time children can be held in custody with their families.
She cited statistics that she said showed asylum claims had risen dramatically over the last seven years, and said that some applicants have been coached to use the “magic words” that trigger legal protections. She called on Congress to change the system to prevent abuse.
In the meantime, Nielsen said, the administration has a message: “If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”
Social media lit up Sunday night after the Washington Post published an op-ed column by Laura Bush, the previous Republican first lady, in which she likened the treatment of immigrant children to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“I live in a border state,” Bush wrote. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director under President George W. Bush, posted a picture of a Nazi concentration camp on Twitter on Saturday and wrote, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”
Even the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and typically a steadfast Trump supporter, called the family separations “disgraceful.”
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn Friday, Trump claimed that he “hates” the separation of children from their parents, but blamed Democrats. One reporter responded by asking the president why he was lying; he did not get a response.