Donald Trump may have campaigned for president by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and calling for a wall on the southern border, but he also periodically showed a softer side towards immigrants.
Even though he ended an Obama-era program that allowed undocumented immigrants brought as children to avoid deportation, he also said that they were “terrific people” and that he wanted a legislative solution that showed “great heart.”
Now, that same tension is driving the Trump Administration’s policy of separating parents and children apprehended at the U.S. border. But if it plays out like the fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it will likely end with Trump’s stricter side winning out.
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy to refer everyone caught crossing the border for criminal prosecution, which would result in them being separated from their families. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” he said.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that the policy would be “a tough deterrent” to discourage others from attempting to immigrate, while Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended it, arguing that “it is very biblical to enforce the law.”
But Trump himself has also decried the policy’s effects. “I hate the children being taken away,” he told reporters Friday at the White House. “I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children.” Speaking before an event on space Monday, he argued that immigration laws which he blamed for the policy are “horrible and tough.” “What’s happening is so sad — is so sad,” he said.
Some of Trump’s advisors have echoed that language.
“Nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience … I will tell you that nobody likes this policy.”
At the same time, Trump has not backed down from the hardline impulses that drove his Administration to develop the policy in the first place. In an impromptu interview with Fox News on Friday, he temporarily torpedoed a Republican immigration compromise when he casually dismissed it as too moderate. And in tweets about immigration over the weekend he brought up everything from the violent MS-13 gang to European immigration problems to crime in Latin American countries.
“Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he wrote Monday morning. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”
The division within the White House was made most clear by a statement from First Lady Melania Trump which simultaneously decried the policy and deflected blame for it.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” said her communications director, Stephanie Grisham. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
For now, Trump appears to be resolving the tension by falsely blaming Democrats for the family separation policy and arguing that they could end it by agreeing to a comprehensive immigration bill. The House of Representatives is slated to vote on two immigration bills this week, but both face an uncertain path through the Senate to Trump’s desk.
Polls show the family separation policy is unpopular with the general public, with two-thirds of Americans in a recent Quinnipiac survey saying they oppose it. But that same poll showed a majority of Republicans agree with it — the only demographic group who did.
That makes the policy an even trickier issue for Republican lawmakers than DACA. Polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants brought as children — the so-called Dreamers — to avoid deportation and eventually apply for citizenship.
But that support has not helped lawmakers resolve an impasse over immigration and pass legislation to aid Dreamers. It’s not clear yet how the fight over the family separation policy will end differently.