WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump ordered an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents on the US border on Wednesday, reversing a tough policy under heavy pressure from his fellow Republicans, Democrats and the international community.
The spectacular about-face comes after more than 2,300 children were stripped from their parents and adult relatives after illegally crossing the border since May 5 and placed in tent camps and other facilities, with no way to contact their relatives.
Pictures and accounts of the separations sparked outrage and a rebellion among Republicans in Trump's own party, as well as international accusation that the US was committing human rights violations.
"What we have done today is we are keeping families together," Trump said as he signed the executive order. "I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."
US 'will not be a migrant camp': Trump
Trump said that even with the change, border enforcement will be "equally tough, if not tougher."
For weeks, Trump had insisted he was bound by the law to split the children from their parents and that only Congress could resolve the problem before he radically shifted gears.
"We want security for our country," Trump said. "And we will have that at the same time, we have compassion, we want to keep families together."
The order says the Department of Homeland Security and not the Justice and Health and Human Services Departments, as under previous policy would have continuing responsibility for the families.
It also suggests the government intends to hold the families indefinitely by challenging an existing statute, the 1997 Flores Settlement, that places a 20-day limit on how long children, along or with their parents, can be detained.
That move could lead to new legal battles for the administration.
Trump said there was a need to remain tough to prevent crime.
Trump no longer 'moral leader of free world': top rights body
"We still have to maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don't stand for and we don't want," he said.
Earlier, as countries marked World Refugee Day on Wednesday, world leaders assailed Trump for the separations.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Council of Europe and Pope Francis all took issue with the "zero tolerance" policy.
May said images of migrant children kept in cage-like units were "deeply disturbing," and the Council of Europe, a global human rights watchdog, said Trump had abdicated any claim to moral leadership in the world.
"A person's dignity does not depend on them being a citizen, a migrant, or a refugee. Saving the life of someone fleeing war and poverty is an act of humanity," the pope said on Twitter.
After a downturn last year, since October, the number of migrants seeking to cross the southwest US border from impoverished Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as from Mexico, has surged.
From March to May this year, more than 50,000 people a month were apprehended for illegally crossing the border from Mexico. About 15 percent of those are arriving as families, and eight percent as unaccompanied children.
Nearly all of the families, and many others, have officially requested asylum, citing the incessant violence in their home countries.
The zero tolerance policy, with mandatory separation of children from adults, was announced May 7 as a deterrent.
Trump doubles down on family separations as border crisis rages
The issue struck an emotional chord, amid accounts of children screaming and crying in facilities prepared for them
"We were outside, and you could hear voices of children that appeared to be playing or laughing," pediatrician Marsha Griffin
"But when they opened the door, we saw around 20 to 30 10-year-old boys in one of these chain-link enclosures, and they were crying and screaming and asking for their mothers."
Trump did not say how the 2,300-plus children already taken from their families would be reunited. On Tuesday, a top official from the Department of Health and Human Services admitted they have no system in place to do so.