Amid a growing global outcry, President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that stops U.S. immigration officials from separating children from parents who illegally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., The Associated Press reported. Since the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration ramped up in early May, at least 2,300 children have been separated from their parents. The Justice Department is pursuing federal charges against adults who have illegally crossed the border.
“We are keeping families together,” Trump told reporters following days of outrage at the policy both at home and abroad. But, Trump warned, the “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting migrants who illegally cross the border will continue. He signed the executive order in the Oval Office with Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen looked on. Trump added that he liked neither the “sight” or “feeling” of seeing young children taken away from their parents.
The order calls for parents and children to be kept together while detained by immigration officials as they await prosecution. According to the AP, first lady Melania Trump figured prominently in changing the president’s mind on the issue. According to an anonymous White House official cited in the report, the first lady had made her opinion on the matter known to her husband, essentially telling him he needed to do something to help the families who are crossing the border.
Earlier on Wednesday, criticism of the zero-tolerance policy was mounting from all around the world. Pope Francis condemned the practice, Reuters reported, saying the policy is “contrary to our Catholic values” and “immoral.” The pontiff continued in comments made to Reuters on Sunday, saying, “It’s not easy, but populism is not the solution.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May also publicly criticized the U.S. government for separating children from parents. “The pictures of children being held in what appear to be cages are deeply disturbing,” May told MPs during a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, Business Insider reported.
“This is wrong, this is not something we agree with, this is not the United Kingdom’s approach,” May said.
The outcry within the U.S. has been growing all week. As new reports and images have emerged show children kept in makeshift cages inside tent cities or converted former big box retail stores, outrage has hit a fevered pitch and calls for an end to the policy have mounted. The tipping point may have come on Tuesday night when The Associated Press reported that the youngest of child migrants are being shipped to “tender age” shelters. Babies as young as 1 year old to children up to 13 and some with special needs are being kept in three different shelters in Texas, all near the border. The AP reported that the Trump administration was planning to open a fourth shelter in Houston.
During her Tuesday evening broadcast, moments after the story broke, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow attempted to read the AP story about “tender age” shelters aloud on television. But she broke down several times trying get through the difficult details in the news report. A clip of Maddow struggling to read the report on live TV went viral on social media.
Rachel Maddow chokes up and cries on air as she struggles to deliver news that migrant babies and toddlers have been sent to "tender age" shelters pic.twitter.com/O6crm8cvyR
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) June 20, 2018
That moment stood in stark contrast to another clip from cable news that went viral for the opposite reasons. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was seen on Fox News mocking a heartbreaking story about a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who was separated from her mother by border officials.
“Womp-womp,” Lewandowski said after being told of the girl’s plight. The clip went viral as many expressed outrage over his callous response to a child’s suffering. Watch it below.
.@Zac_Petkanas says on Fox News a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome was separated from her mother at the border.
Corey Lewandowski responds: "Womp womp." pic.twitter.com/cZMXWmwbjw
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) June 19, 2018
Trump, it appeared, recognized the severity and unsustainability of the situation, even if he wasn’t sympathetic to it on a human level. At a meeting with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he discussed a need to intervene, something he’s had the power to do, but until now has not acted. One lawmaker who was at the meeting said Trump viewed the crisis in terms of how it could impact the coming midterm elections, reportedly saying, “the crying babies doesn’t look good politically,” according to CNN.
Below, watch a clip of Trump addressing reporters at the White House about the “dilemma” he said he’s been facing.
Pres. Trump addressing "dilemma" with immigration policy: "If you're really pathetically weak the country is going to be overrun by millions of people, and if you're strong then you don't have any heart… perhaps I'd rather be strong." https://t.co/mATcMfWOkq pic.twitter.com/vWaCduBIEQ
— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) June 20, 2018
Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama used the occasion of World Refugee Day to weigh in on the issue. In a post on Facebook, Obama asked readers to imagine having been born somewhere other than the U.S., where fear for one’s life is a constant and the need to flee is a desperate one. “That’s the reality for so many of the families whose plights we see and heart-rending cries we hear,” Obama wrote.
“Whether our families crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we’re only here because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, how our last names sound, or the way we worship. To be an American is to have a shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve the chance to become something better.” Read his full post below.