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Trump makes abrupt about-face on family separation after intense pressure

President Trump relented on the widely condemned practice of splitting up undocumented families on Wednesday, reversing his decision with the stroke of a pen while seeming openly conflicted about the decision. Instead, his executive order would detain families together, as Congress scrambles to craft long-term fixes. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A sudden shift today at the White House. The president relented on the widely condemned practice of splitting up undocumented families.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    You are going to have a lot of happy people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    With a pen, President Trump again changed the fate of thousands of families with an executive order reversing his decision to enforce the law by separating children from parents at the border.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The border is just as tough. But we do want to keep the families together. Anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don't like to see families separated. At the same time, we don't want people coming into our country illegally.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The change came a month-and-a-half into the zero tolerance policy, and after a day of intense pressure on the White House.

    From Republicans.

  • Question:

    Has the White House been handling this well?

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    No. Clearly, they didn't think this thing through.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    From Democrats.

  • Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev.:

    We are here to call on the president to rescind this zero tolerance policy. This is not about attacking the president. This is about humanity.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    from And protesters, including some shouting at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant last night. President Trump announced the about-face around lunchtime.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're signing an executive order in a little while.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president's executive order would detain families together, instead of separately. The administration insists the change doesn't mean it is backing down from its zero tolerance policy.

    Mr. Trump announced the change to a table full of Republican lawmakers, but seemed openly conflicted on the topic.

  • President Donald Trump:

    If you're weak, which some people would like you to be, if you're 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 would rather be strong.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For days, the public has seen these images, provided by the administration, of some of the shelters for the more than 2,300 kids now separated from their parents. That figure is for the first month alone of the president's zero tolerance policy. It is still not clear how many are toddlers or infants and how long it will take to reunite them with parents.

    The White House moved quickly to try to ease concern and answer questions, with Secretary Nielsen dispatched soon after the executive order was announced to speak to some 50 House Republicans at the Capitol.

    Afterward, Nielsen spoke with reporters.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Good discussion, very good questions, very excited for the vote tomorrow. We're going to get this fixed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All this as House and Senate leaders scrambled to craft long-term fixes to the situation, and as the House moved toward a Thursday vote on a larger immigration plan to also address dreamers, those people who crossed into the U.S. illegally as children.

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:

    Tomorrow, we're going to have a vote on legislation that makes sure that we can enforce our laws and keep families together.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meantime, President Trump also announced the congressional family picnic at the White House — you see photos of last year's event — will be postponed. It was set for tomorrow, but the president said the time doesn't feel right for a picnic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now from the Capitol, where she's been all day.

    So, Lisa, let's talk about this executive order. Explain exactly what does it do? How does it mesh with existing law?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The White House had an on-the-record call with a lawyer from the attorney general's office. And here's what they told us, that this will detain immigrant families together, rather than separately, as reported.

    Theoretically, Judy, it's effective immediately. However, there is an implementation phase that they're not sure how long it will take for this to actually happen in practice. Now, there's a serious question of the legalities here.

    There is something called the Flores agreement that goes back to the Bill Clinton days courts have upheld. They have ruled that children cannot be detained by this country for more than 20 years — in these is going to — I'm sorry — for more than 20 days in these immigrant cases.

    So the administration is asking for a modification of that ruling to allow them to hold these families indefinitely. It is not clear what the administration will do if they don't get that modification.

    Judy, there is concern here from the Capitol that after 20 days this executive order will be effectively illegal. I talked to Virginia Congressman and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte. He says they expect lawsuits questioning the legality of this executive order based on that Flores agreement.

    So they say Congress needs to passes a more permanent fix, because this executive order is on tenuous legal ground.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, as we saw, you have been talking to a number of lawmakers. What are they all saying about this turnaround by the administration?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    First, nearly all of them were in the dark, Judy.

    We were telling them ourselves what was in this executive order, but there is relief, especially for Republicans. This is something they had been pressing for. They had felt a lot of pressure on this issue. For Democrats, they aren't sure what the future is and exactly how they will operate now.

    They generally don't want families detained together, but they're happy for this reversal, at least for now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you mentioned the fact that Republicans are trying to get something passed tomorrow in the House. Tell us about that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right. This is a significant bill.

    First of all, let's look at what it does. It would give a status to DACA or dreamer kids, those brought here illegally as children. It would also have funding for the border wall. It would also decrease legal immigration, and it would detain families together. It would be a permanent fix on that.

    But, Judy, right now, that bill doesn't have the votes to pass the House. And, of course, it would still leave open the long-term solution on this issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Lisa, if the House doesn't come up with a solution, what happens to these children? Is there — we know there has been discussion in the Senate. What could they do?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    I came from one of the many, many meetings that I was at today on the Hill, a Senate bipartisan meeting. Susan Collins brought together Ted Cruz of Texas and Dianne Feinstein of California to try and merge their bills together.

    Let's look at those do. They deal only with child separation. Senator Cruz would detain families together, but try to speed up their processing. Senator Feinstein wouldn't have family detention. She would rather release them pending a hearing. They're trying to put together that TBD bipartisan deal.

    I think all hope for these kids long-term rests right now in the Senate trying to work that out. Meanwhile, we're watching closely to find out short-term what happens to those families already separated, because it's not clear yet how soon they can be reunited. The administration has not answered those questions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, for all that time, they were not focused on immigration. They certainly appear to be now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

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