WASHINGTON (NBC News) — President Donald Trump’s administration is implementing a new policy that will separate more children from their parents at the border, despite the president falsely blaming Democrats and an unspecified "horrible law" for their decision.
The administration confirmed this month that breaking up families was a byproduct of their new "zero tolerance" plan to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally, which would require minors who traveled with their family to be taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the previous policy, children were usually allowed to stay with their parents in shelters while awaiting legal proceedings.
"If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier this month at an event in Arizona announcing the move. "If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border."
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, defended separating families in an NPR interview this month as "a tough deterrent" against illegal immigration after an uptick in border crossings by Central American nationals.
"The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever," Kelly said.
The changes prompted widespread coverage of the policy and an outcry from human rights groups, which noted many families crossing the border were seeking asylum after fleeing violence in their home countries.
But even as his own top official defended the change, Trump tweeted Saturday that the administration’s policy was actually due to a "horrible law" enacted by Democrats and urged Americans to build "pressure" to fix it. He had previously blamed family separations on "the bad laws that the Democrats gave us."
Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2018
In a follow-up statement on Monday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley referred more generally to "open border policies" that were "encouraging mass immigration" rather than a specific law that caused children to be separated.
The Associated Press noted in a fact check that the administration had previously criticized a 2008 law requiring children traveling alone at the border to be released in the "least restrictive setting" while their cases are processed. But the law does not proscribe removing children from parents and it was signed by President George W. Bush with unanimous support in Congress as part of an effort to combat human trafficking.
Trump’s tweet was the latest in a long line of false claims and conspiracy theories about immigration that the president has promoted over the course of his campaign and White House tenure. Past examples include falsely accusing Mexico of forcing criminals to cross the border, badly mischaracterizing America’s visa lottery program, and accusing millions of immigrants of voting illegally, a claim that has been resoundingly debunked by Republican and Democratic election officials alike.