Government in confusion over whether families will be reunited

Developments on Day 517 of the Trump Administration:

See also Podcast: Trump’s Confusing U-Turn on Immigrant Children
Podcast: Trump’s Confusing U-Turn on Immigrant Children

Donald Trump signs a piece of paper retreating from his policy of separating children from undocumented immigrant parents — but almost 2,500 juveniles may continue to be detained.

After a week of revelations about the detentions and a surge of criticism, Trump suddenly reversed his position — on Tuesday, he had declared that he could not issue an executive order over the separations — and announced yesterday afternoon that he would soon be signing an “important” document. Two hours later, he put pen to paper and said in the Oval Office, “We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together. I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

However, Trump’s sudden move — which followed intense discussions between Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen and White House lawyers — only caused more confusion, with officials unprepared to act.

See also Podcasts: “Trump is Holding Immigrant Children Hostage”
Trump Steps Up Lies Over Child-Parent Separations, Says Immigrants “Infest” US

Some federal officials said children held under April’s “zero tolerance” order from Attorney General Jeff Session would not be reunited with parents who remain in federal custody during immigration proceedings.

There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases,” said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services. Wolfe said the decision to keep the children in detention was made by the White House.

But later Wednesday evening, Brian Marriott, the senior director of HHS communication, said Wolfe had “misspoke” and “we are awaiting further guidance on the matter”. He maintained that “reunification is always the goal” and that the agency “is working toward that”.

Marriott’s statement left open the possibility that the children will be placed with other family members or “appropriate” sponsors, rather than their parents.

Confusion Over Future Detentions

The four-page statement signed by Trump says officials will continue “zero tolerance” through criminal prosecutions of anyone who crosses the border “illegally”, but will seek to find or build facilities that can hold families together while courts are hearing their cases.

However, a 1997 court decision, reaffirmed in 2016, says that children cannot be held in custody, even with their parents, for more than 20 days. The later ruling prompted the Obama Administration to deport families or use electronic tags to monitor parents while they remained in the US.

Justice Department officials said they will approach Judge Dolly Gee of the Federal District Court in Los Angeles, who oversees the 1997 court decree, known as the “Flores settlement”.

Gene Hamilton, counselor to Attorney General Sessions, put pressure on Judge Gee to alter the settlement: “It’s on [her]. Are we going to be able to detain alien families together or are we not?” He claimed her previous rulings “put this executive branch into an untenable position”.

Officials on a White House conference call could not answer questions about where families will be detained, or whether children will continue to be separated from parents while the facilities to hold them are located or built.

Hamilton also continued the Trump Administration tactics of trying to leverage the children into Congressional passage of a bill including $25 billion for The Wall with Mexico, restrictions on legal immigration and admission of refugees, and an end to the Visa Diversity Lottery. He said Trump’s “order” is a stopgap measure that can be fixed permanently with the appropriate legislation.

The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on two immigration bills: a hard-line Republican proposal which denies a path to citizenship for about 800,000 “Dreamers”, and a moderate alternative which maintains the path for those who came to the US as children with undocumented immigrant parents.

On Tuesday, at a roundtable with GOP legislators, Trump declined to support either bill and appeared to lack focus, quickly moving to other topics and insulting Representative Mark Sanford, who lost his primary election this spring as Trump called him “nasty”.

Republicans in the Senate have proposed narrow legislation to end separations without taking up the wider Trump proposals.

On Tuesday, Trump slammed the door on one option, a proposal by Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn to expedite case by adding more judges. He declared that judges would be unqualified and the system prone to graft, adding that he did not really want a legal process at all: “I don’t want to try people. I want to stop people coming in.”

A Family Affair?

Before his “order”, Trump betrayed his uncertainty in the face of criticism:

The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be. If you are 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. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong.

White House officials spun the story that Trump’s wife Melania and daughter Ivanka were instrumental in shifting Trump’s public position. They said Melania had argued for a middle way between opening borders and taking children from parents.

Ivanka Trump immediately took to Twitter after her father’s announcement, praising him without mentioning that he had forced the separations and detentions in the first place:

But a “person who knows Trump’s mind” cited another influence:

The President watches more cable news than most Americans. So he experienced an overdose of the outrage and the media frenzy. None of the White House messaging seemed to be helping. So he decided, mostly on his own rather than at the urging of advisers, that some action was required to change the narrative.

US Steel Prices Up 40% Amid Trump Tariffs

US steel prices have risen 40% since January, amid the Trump Administratin’s 25% tariff on steel imports from countries such as Canada and European Union members like Germany.

In a Congressional hearing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross blamed speculators: “What has been happening is a very unsatisfactory thing….It is clearly a result of anti-social behaviour by people in the industry.” 

He did not mention whether the price rise might have been a logical market response when prices for imported steel are increasing because of the Administration’s tariffs.

In contrast, both Republican and Democratic senators cited the administration’s “ chaotic” and “incompetent’ introduction of the steel tariffs as well as a 10% levy on aluminum imports.