President Donald Trump denied Tuesday that his administration is once more preparing to separate migrant families in response to the surge in border crossings, telling reporters that he had ordered an end to a policy established under President Barack Obama.
“I’m the one who stopped it,” Trump said. “President Obama had child separation.”
Trump also told reporters at the Oval Office that he did not approve of the Border Patrol holding pens with chain-link partitions widely derided as “cages,” whose images exacerbated a backlash against the White House last spring at the height of its “zero-tolerance” prosecution push.
“Those cages that were shown — I think they were very inappropriate — were by President Obama’s administration, not by Trump,” the president said.
More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents last spring under the policy before the president reversed course amid a public outcry.
Under Obama, the separation of parents from their children at the border occurred on a far more limited basis than what the White House attempted last year.
The chain-link holding pens appeared in videos and photographs of underage migrants held at the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. The facility was established in a converted warehouse that the Obama administration opened in 2014 when record numbers of Central American minors arrived at the border, leaving Border Patrol stations overflowing.
Asked directly if he is planning to separate families again, the president said no. But he defended the effectiveness of the tactic as a deterrent to migration.
U.S. officials say courts have prohibited them from taking children from their parents for purposes of deterrence.
“We’re not looking to do that, now,” Trump said, adding that it brings “a lot more people to the border when you don’t do it.”
The Trump administration has argued that Central Americans have been gaming the U.S. asylum system, taking advantage of U.S. laws that aim to allow people to seek protection from persecution. Trump alleges that people are submitting false claims and that the U.S. immigration system is not tough enough on them. Those seeking asylum can be released into the United States while they await court hearings, some of which are months or years delayed due to a massive backlog. U.S. courts have limited the government’s ability to hold families with children in detention.
“Now I’ll tell you something, once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming,” Trump said, referring to family separations. “They are coming like it’s a picnic, because, ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’”
Trump also challenged claims that a spate of recent dismissals of top leaders in the Department of Homeland Security amounted to an attempt to clean house. He has expressed frustrations with the agency and its inability to reduce the number of migrants entering the country via the southern border. On Monday, the head of the U.S. Secret Service announced his departure, a day after DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she was stepping down.
“I never said I’m cleaning house,” Trump said. “I don’t know who came up with that expression. We have a lot of great people over there. We have bad laws.”
The White House last week also abruptly yanked its nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and DHS officials say the White House’s moves have left the department “decapitated” and in administrative disarray.