Even while more Republicans renounce his immigration policy separating families at the border, Donald Trump is doubling down thinking that this is what his base expects of him. “He’s being given a much different picture of what’s happening in the detainment centers than what the media is showing,” a White House insider said. “The President really thinks that the children are happy and that his base is getting exactly what he promised them.”
Calling the shots as his West Wing clears out, President Donald Trump sees his hard-line immigration stance as a winning issue heading into a midterm election he views as a referendum on his protectionist policies.
“You have to stand for something,” Trump declared Tuesday, as he defended his administration’s immigration policy amid mounting criticism over the forced separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The chorus of condemnation includes Democrats, as well as Republicans, who are increasingly worried that reports about bereft children taken from their parents could damage the GOP’s chances in November.
Still, Trump believes that his immigration pledges helped win him the presidency and that his most loyal supporters want him to follow through. While he made a rare trip to Capitol Hill late Tuesday to meet with GOP legislators seeking a solution, Trump remains confident that projecting toughness on immigration is the right call, said five White House officials and outside advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
“It’s amazing how people are surprised that he’s keeping the promises he made on the campaign trail now,” said Trump political adviser Bill Stepien.
While the White House signaled Trump might be open to a narrow fix to deal with the problem, the president spent the day stressing immigration policies that he has championed throughout his surprise political career. He has resisted calls to reverse the separation policy, saying any change must come through Congress.
In a speech to a business group earlier Tuesday, Trump said he wanted to see a legislation deal on family separation, which, he said, “We don’t want.” He also emphasized border security and again made the false argument that Democrats are to blame for the family separation problem. Said Trump: “Politically correct or not, we have a country that needs security, that needs safety, that has to be protected.”
Several White House aides, led by adviser Stephen Miller, have encouraged the president to make immigration a defining issue for the midterms. And Trump has told advisers he believes he looks strong on the matter, suggesting that it could be a winning culture war issue much like his attacks on NFL players who take a knee for the national anthem.
Former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon said the president is emphasizing the policies that brought him to the White House.
“I think this is one of his best moments. I think this is a profile in courage. This is why America elected him. He is not a politician, he’s a leader. He will not back down on core principles,” Bannon said. “This is not doubling down, it is tripling down.”
Trump’s immigration standoff comes as he escalates his nationalist trade moves, imposing new tariffs on imports and threatening more. With few powerful opposing voices remaining in the West Wing, Trump is increasingly making these decisions solo. Some key advisers have left, and chief of staff John Kelly appears sidelined.
Republicans, particularly those in more moderate districts, are worried they will be damaged by the searing images of children held in cages at border facilities, as well as by audio recordings of young children crying for their parents. The House Republicans’ national campaign chairman, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, said in a statement Monday that he’s asking “the administration to stop needlessly separating children from their parents.”
Other conservatives also raised concerns, but many called for Congress to make changes instead of asking Trump to directly intervene. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom coalition of evangelical voters, added to the drumbeat to end the child separation policy Tuesday, calling on Congress to pass legislation that would end the process.
But asked if the border policy was bad for Trump politically, Reed suggested core supporters remain on the president’s side. He said the group’s members are “more than willing to give the president and his administration the benefit of the doubt that this is being driven by a spike in people crossing the border, a combination of existing law and court decisions require this separation, and the fact that the Democrats refused to work with the administration to increase judges so that this can be dealt with more expeditiously.”
The growing outrage is reminiscent of the tumult after last summer’s deadly clash involving counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: Trump pointedly refused to exclusively blame neo-Nazis and white supremacists, suggesting there was blame to be shared “on both sides.” But Trump’s supporters think this situation is different, given the strong support he has enjoyed for his tough immigration policies.
Worried that the lack of progress on his signature border wall will make him look “soft,” according to one adviser, Trump has unleashed a series of tweets playing up the dangers posed by members of the MS-13 gang — which make up a minuscule percentage of those who cross the border. He used the loaded term “infest” to reference the influx of immigrants entering the country illegally.
As the immigration story becomes a national flashpoint, Trump has been watching the coverage on television with increasing anger, telling confidants he believes media outlets are deliberately highlighting the worst images — the cages and screaming toddlers — to make him look bad.
The president has long complained about his treatment by the media, but his frustrations reached a particular boiling point after he returned from his Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to face news reports questioning his negotiating skills. He complained to one adviser that the media had not given him enough credit after the summit and was continuing to undermine him on immigration, according to a person familiar with the conversation but not authorized to speak publicly.
On Tuesday, Trump argued that sticking by his policies was a winning political strategy as he took a fresh shot at Democrats.
“They can’t win on their policies, which are horrible,” he said. “They found that out in the last presidential election.”
5 False Claims From Donald Trump’s Administration On Immigration Policy
False claim: Family separations are Democrats’ fault
Trump said the family separations at the border are “a result of Democrat-supported loopholes in our federal laws” that he said could be easily changed.
“These are crippling loopholes that cause family separation, which we don’t want,” Trump said.
The reality: Trump’s administration decided to prosecute 100% of adults caught crossing the border illegally even if they came with children, and thus are separating parents from their kids at the border with no clear plan to reunite them after the parents return from jail and court proceedings.
The administration has long wanted to roll back a law unanimously passed under President George W. Bush and a court settlement dating back decades but most recently affirmed under the Obama administration — citing those two provisions as “loopholes.” Both were designed to protect immigrant children from dangers like human trafficking and to provide minimum standards for their care, including turning them over to the Department of Health and Human Services for resettlement within three days of arrest, as opposed to being held in lengthy detention, and dictating that children with their families also cannot be held in detention or jail-like conditions longer than three weeks.
The administration has complained the laws make it harder to immediately deport or reject immigrants at the border, and that they are not able to detain families indefinitely.
False claim: Thousands of judges
Trump said his administration was hiring “thousands and thousands” of immigration judges, that the US already has “thousands” of immigration judges and that other countries don’t have immigration judges.
In reality, there the Justice Department’s immigration courts division has 335 judges nationwide, with more than 100 more judges budgeted for, according to a DOJ spokesman.
Because of a massive backlog in the immigration courts, it can take years for those cases to work their way to completion, and many immigrants are allowed to work and live in the US in the meantime, putting down roots. The funding for immigration courts and judges has increased only modestly over the years as funding and resources for enforcement have increased dramatically. A proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to address the family separation issue would double the number of judges to 750.
Trump’s comments Tuesday echoed remarks he made last month. In a May Fox News interview, he claimed the United States was “essentially the only country that has judges” to handle immigration cases. But that is incorrect.
False claim: Virtually all immigrants disappear
Trump also claimed falsely that when immigrants are let into the country to have their cases heard by a court, they virtually all go into hiding.
“And by the way, when we release the people, they never come back to the judge, anyway. They’re gone,” Trump said. “Do you know if a person comes in and puts one foot on our ground, it’s essentially, ‘Welcome to America, welcome to our country.’ You never get them out because they take their name, they bring the name down, they file it, then they let the person go. … Like 3% come back.”
In reality, the number of immigrants who don’t show up to court proceedings is far lower. And many of the immigrants released from detention are given monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets to ensure they return.
According to the annual Justice Department yearbook of immigration statistics from fiscal year 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 25% of immigration court cases were decided “in absentia” — meaning the immigrant wasn’t present in court. In that year, there were 137,875 cases. The number of cases decided “in absentia” between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2016 was between 11% and 28%.
When White House legislative chief Marc Short made a similarly inaccurate claim on Monday, the White House pointed to a statistic about the high percentage of deportation orders for undocumented children that were delivered in absentia, but amid total case completions for minors, the number of in absentia orders has ranged from 40% to 50% in recent years.
Advocates for immigrants attribute some of the missed hearings to often not receiving a court notice mailed to an old address or not having an attorney who can adequately explain the process to the child. Studies have shown that with legal advice and guidance, immigrants are far more likely to show up for hearings and have their claims ultimately be successful.
False claim: Countries are sending bad eggs to the US
Trump said that countries deserve to be punished for illegal immigration, and that they “send” bad eggs to the US.
“They send these people up, and they’re not sending their finest,” Trump said.
He continued: ‘When countries abuse us by sending people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries.”
In fact, there is no evidence that countries “send” anyone in particular to the US — rather analyses of recent immigration flows have shown that in recent years, a much higher number of Central Americans have come to the US fleeing rampant gang violence and instability in especially the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Experts who study the countries agree that cutting aid would only further destabilize the region, likely making illegal immigration worse, not better.
Though gang members do cross the border illegally alongside those fleeing violence, the administration has never been able to provide numbers showing that those are a large percentage of the cases. Only a handful of such prosecutions occur a year, while more than 300,000 people were apprehended trying to cross the border illegally last fiscal year. Nearly 120,000 defensive asylum applications were filed last year, according to government data, meaning those individuals believed they were fleeing violent situations back home.
False Claim: Mexico isn’t helping the US
Mexico, Trump said, “does nothing for us.”
As for Mexico’s contribution, experts say the country’s crackdown on immigrants within its borders has been a major help to the US in recent years. According to statistics from the US and Mexican governments compiled by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and shared with CNN, over the past three years, Mexico has deported tens of thousands more migrants back to the primary countries in Central America that drive immigration north. Each of the last three years, Mexican removals exceeded US removals to those countries.
Mexico is also apprehending tens of thousands of Central Americans before they reach the US. According to the data, Mexico intercepted 173,000 Central Americans in fiscal year 2015, 151,000 in fiscal year 2016 and just under 100,000 in fiscal year 2017.
In the past two years, Mexico has lagged behind the US in apprehensions, but Migration Policy Institute President Andrew Selee, an expert on Mexican policy, said that could be due to a number of factors including smugglers successfully changing their routes to avoid detection or relations with Trump.