Politics

‘Zero Tolerance’ Remains in Effect as First Lady Visits Migrant Kids

POTUS says one thing about prosecutions, newspaper another, DOJ something else

First lady Melania Trump smiles after signing a welcome poster made for her at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The White House policy prosecuting all adults who enter the United States illegally remains in place even if they arrive with children, President Donald Trump said as his wife defiantly toured a southern border detention center.

Trump defended the “zero tolerance” policy at the conclusion of a Cabinet meeting at the White House amid confusion about the status of the program and the fates of detained migrant families.

“If you took zero-tolerance away, you would be overrun as a country. You’d have millions of people pouring through our border,” Trump said, reprising talking points he used as recently as at a Wednesday rally in Minnesota — as first lady Melania Trump spoke softly and smiled with migrant children in McAllen, Texas.

[This Time, Trump Undercuts Both House GOP Immigration Bills]

The president spoke as House GOP leaders delayed a vote on a compromise immigration bill as they voted down a conservative measure, neither of which the president got fully behind.

Trump instead bemoaned the filibuster, accused Democrats of obstructing immigration bills and then invited the minority party to the White House to discuss the issue.

The irony of the invitation?  Many lawmakers were planning to attend the annual Congressional Picnic at the White House Thursday evening, but the president abruptly cancelled it on Wednesday.

‘Her opinions’

Meantime, the first lady met children who have been separated from their parents at the border. 

“I also like to ask you how I can help to be sure these children reunite with their families as quickly as possible,” she said.

One shelter employee said kids typically are “distraught” after being removed from their parents’ sides. 

Around that time, the president announced federal agencies would attempt to reunite 2,300 already split children and parents.

Her trip had an air of defiance. It came one day after the president admitted she let him know she felt “strongly” that migrant families should remain together.

“I’m sure she’ll continue to let her husband know her opinions,” her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said. “She does that often.”

The first lady instructed her staff to make the trip happen on Tuesday, one day before her husband signed an executive order to keep family units intact. 

Mixed in with the drama was the first lady’s wardrobe. The back of the jacket she wore as she boarded her plane at Andrews Air Force Base Thursday morning read: “I really don’t care. Do U?” in white lettering that looks like broad paint strokes.

Asked about the jacket, Grisham told the White House pool by email: “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.” By the time she got to Texas, the jacket had come off. 

Watch: Pelosi Slams 'Delusional' Trump for Asylum Policies

The juxtaposition of the first couple hit television screens the same time the Washington Post published an article with unnamed senior officials initially contradicting the president. The first version stated the administration was ending mandatory prosecutions for adult migrants.

But the Post quickly corrected the article to state merely that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials will no longer refer migrant adults accompanied by children to federal courthouses for prosecution, which are conducted by the Justice Department.

But that raised additional questions. A DOJ spokesperson told the Post there have been no changes to that department’s portion of the “zero tolerance” policy.

The family separations controversy blew up last week amid images of children wailing and in cages. 

‘Bargaining chip’

Since Trump’s executive order, Democrats have argued his search for a way out of one humanitarian crisis merely created another.

[House Rejects Conservative Immigration Bill; Delays Consideration of Compromise]

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the revised policy will “indefinitely detain entire families in facilities that may include ill-equipped tent cities.”

“Our president is treating children and their indefinite detention or separation from their parents as a bargaining chip in a long running disagreement over how to fix our nation’s broken immigration system,” Coons said.

Democratic members spent much of the last two weeks accusing Trump and his top homeland security aides of using the migrant children as a way to secure full funding for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, on Thursday wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar seeking answers she did not get during a June 12 hearing.

She told Azar it is “frighteningly clear the department and the Trump administration as a whole have absolutely no concern for the wellbeing of thousands of children.”

The secretary might have some first-hand data to share with Murray. Azar traveled to the Texas border detention facility with the first lady on Thursday.

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