President Donald Trump isn’t inclined to back down.
So we are as surprised as we are relieved that Trump is abandoning the cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and housing them in conditions that, in some instances, resemble animal shelters.
In the six weeks since the administration imposed its “zero-tolerance” policy, more than 2,300 children were taken from their parents and placed in detention facilities in 17 states.
Under an executive order signed Wednesday, families will be kept together in federal custody while awaiting prosecution for illegal border crossings.
Trump, who recently referred to immigrants “infesting” America, kept up his tough talk about border security. “If you’re weak, you’re pathetically weak, your country’s going to be overrun with people,” he said at a Wednesday meeting with Republican congressional leaders, adding, “I’d rather be strong.”
But there’s nothing strong about mistreating children, and Trump couldn’t talk his way past the widespread and growing condemnation of his policy, which has come from Democrats, Republicans, all four living former first ladies, religious leaders and even members of his own family.
“I live in a border state,” former first lady Laura Bush wrote in the Washington Post this week. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
It shouldn’t have taken photographs of frightened toddlers or recordings of their wails to convince the president that ripping children from their parents’ arms is wrong.
But reversing this inhumane policy isn’t enough.
The larger issue — an update of U.S. immigration laws — hasn’t gone away.
For now, the focus is likely to shift to the details of the order that Trump signed on Wednesday, which may violate a 1997 consent decree that limits the duration of child detentions in immigration cases to 20 days, even if they are with their parents.
Beyond that, Trump and Congress still need to address the status of the Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children — as well as the president’s demand for a wall along the entire length of the 1,900-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and models for legal immigration.
Several proposals are circulating on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s failure to clearly articulate the scope of legislation he is willing to sign has added needless confusion to an already complex issue.
Following a meeting with the president on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, fellow Republicans said they can’t pass any of the various immigration proposals pending in the House because they don’t know where he stands.
“It did not move the needle at all,” a GOP lawmaker told Politico after the meeting. “He made comments like ‘I’m behind it 1,000 percent,’ but what is ‘it’?”
A comprehensive agreement won’t be easy to reach, especially in an election year. But the midterms can’t become an excuse for Congress failing, yet again, to act on immigration.
Trump ought to feel a personal obligation to address the Dreamers, who are in limbo only because he rescinded the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed them to stay in the country on renewable visas and work, study or serve in the armed forces.