WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday repeated his false assertion that Democrats were responsible for his administration’s policy of separating migrant families apprehended at the border, sticking to a weekslong refusal to publicly accept responsibility for a widely condemned practice that has become a symbol of his crackdown on illegal immigration.
“Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!” Mr. Trump said in a morning post on Twitter.
It came the day after his administration said that it had taken nearly 2,000 children away from their parents in a six-week period ending last month, as part of a new “zero tolerance” policy that refers for criminal prosecution all immigrants apprehended crossing the border without authorization.
The White House defended the practice this week, saying the president was merely enforcing the law. And in recent speeches around the country, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, has made a spirited case for it, arguing that a strict approach is a vital tool for deterrence.
But Mr. Trump has steadfastly tried to deflect blame for the separation of children from their parents, consistently dissembling about why it is occurring. His comments are the latest example of his asking the public to discount what it sees with its own eyes and instead believe his own self-serving version of reality. They also reflect how politically poisonous the issue has become, as photographs and news articles circulate about the effects of the practice.
“I hate the children being taken away,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday in front of the White House during a 45-minute impromptu question-and-answer session on a wide range of topics. “The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.”
In fact, there is no law that requires families to be separated at the border. There is a law against “improper entry” at the border, as well as a consent decree known as the Flores settlement that limits to 20 days the amount of time that migrant children may be held in immigration detention, which a federal judge ruled in 2016 also applies to families. A 2008 anti-trafficking statute — signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush — also requires that certain unaccompanied alien minors be transferred out of immigration detention in 72 hours. None of those laws or precedents mean that children must be taken away from their parents.
It is the Trump administration’s decision this year to prosecute all unlawful immigrants as criminals that has forced the breakup of families; the children are removed when the parents are taken into federal custody. While previous administrations have made exceptions to such prosecutions for adults traveling with their minor children, the Trump administration has said it will not do so.
An official from the Department of Homeland Security who insisted on anonymity to discuss the policy said on Friday that there are, in fact, exceptions for babies, but could not provide an age cutoff above which a child may be taken from his or her parent. Data reviewed by The New York Times in April indicated that of more than 700 children separated from their parents since October, over 100 had been under the age of 4.
“Our administration has had the same position since we started on Day 1 that we were going to enforce the law,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday. “We’re a country of law and order, and we’re enforcing the law and protecting our borders.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers rationalize his statements by noting that Democrats have been opposed to the president’s immigration agenda, which they argue would eliminate the need to separate families. The measures include making it more difficult for migrants seeking refuge in the United States to qualify for asylum, overturning the Flores settlement so that immigrants could be detained indefinitely, and changing the 2008 anti-trafficking law. The president has also called for a giant wall on the southern border and cuts to legal immigration, including denying immigrants who gain legal status or citizenship the ability to bring members of their extended family to the United States.
“The loopholes, both legal and judicial, are now wholly owned and belong to Democrats,” Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser and top immigration hand, said in a recent interview, “because they alone oppose their changing.”
“No one in our government is willing to take moral lectures from people who support and perpetuate policies that grievously harm innocent Americans,” Mr. Miller added.
Mr. Trump, however, has not tried to justify the family separation policy, preferring to pretend that it is being forced upon him by his political rivals, and sometimes to ignore it altogether. While the president’s Saturday radio address was about the need to pass legislation — slated for votes in the House next week — that would overhaul immigration laws, he never mentioned the zero tolerance policy that has led to immigrant children being separated from their parents.
Instead, he focused on MS-13, the brutal transnational gang with roots in El Salvador, laying out in graphic detail the crimes its members have inflicted on American citizens and charging, with no basis, that Democrats “want them taken care of — they want them to be left alone.”
“Democrats in Congress have opposed every measure that would close these immigration loopholes and bring the slaughter to an end,” Mr. Trump said.
The president will discuss immigration with House Republicans at a conference meeting planned for early Tuesday evening, according to a Republican aide.
Democrats said Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans who are backing the legislation to be considered next week are misrepresenting the issue.
“Any notion that this bill ends family separation is a boldfaced lie,” said Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. “The Trump administration is brutally separating families at the border because they choose to as a deterrent.”
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