Friday 19 October 2018

Trump blinks first in furore over separation of migrant families

Ivanka Trump watches her father sign the executive order in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo: Getty Images
Ivanka Trump watches her father sign the executive order in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo: Getty Images

Nick Allen and Harriet Alexander

Donald Trump last night backed down on his controversial separation of illegal immigrant families at the Mexican border after interventions by his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka.

He had also faced a backlash from some senior Republicans concerned about the impact of the "zero-tolerance" policy on their chances of winning mid-term elections in November.

Mr Trump's policy of detaining and prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally, and placing their children in separate shelters, resulted in images of youngsters in wire mesh cages blanketing US TV screens over the last week.

The Republican leadership in Congress scrambled to set up a vote on a bill today that would end family separations, but there was uncertainty over whether it would pass.

Wading into the controversy: Pope Francis
Wading into the controversy: Pope Francis

Mr Trump said he would act "pre-emptively" and sign an executive order to stop children being removed from their parents.

Speaking at the White House, he said: "We have to be very strong on the border, but at the same time we want to be very compassionate. We're going to keep families together. But we still have to maintain toughness.

"If you're really, really pathetically weak, the country's going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you're strong then: 'You don't have any heart'... perhaps I'd rather be strong, but that's a tough dilemma."

The US president said he had been personally affected by the images from the border. He said: "These images affect everybody. But I have to say we want both.

"We want the heart, but we want strong borders. We don't want people from the Middle East using children to get over our border."

Mr Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy will remain in place with all illegal immigrants detained and prosecuted, but families would be held together.

The White House faced a possible court battle as a previous legal ruling barred children being held in detention for more than 20 days even if they are with their families.

Mr Trump revealed in a private meeting with Republican politicians that his daughter Ivanka had lobbied him privately to change course.

Melania Trump was also believed to have repeatedly urged an end to the separation of families. Following a meeting by the first couple with the Spanish king and queen on Tuesday, Ms Trump pointedly wrote on Twitter that she had "enjoyed tea and time together focusing on the ways we can positively impact children".

More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents on the US-Mexico border since April.

Under the Obama administration, illegal immigrant families were usually subject to civil, rather than criminal, deportation proceedings, which meant they were not separated.

Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman who met with Mr Trump on Tuesday night, said the president came under pressure from members of his own party. "Absolutely, he blinked," Mr Coffman said.

Mr Trump said Republicans should "not feel guilty" about images from the border, and blamed Democrats. He said: "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."

Pope Francis had stepped into the growing controversy, saying that "populism" and "creating psychosis" were not the way to resolve migration problems.

He strongly backed US Catholic bishops, who have described as "immoral" the Trump administration's policy of discouraging illegal immigration by separating children from their parents at the border.

In an interview on Sunday night, the Pope also took aim at Italy's new populist government, which has been cracking down on asylum seekers attempting dangerous crossings by boat from Africa.

"I believe that you cannot reject people who arrive," Pope Francis said. "You have to receive them, help them, look after them, accompany them and then see where to put them, but throughout all of Europe."

He added: "Some governments are working on it, and people have to be settled in the best possible way, but creating psychosis is not the cure. Populism does not resolve things. What resolves things is acceptance, study, prudence."

Last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the Trump administration's "immoral" separation of families and called the crackdown on migrants a "right-to-life" issue.

Irish Independent

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