The debate over enforcement of immigration law was front and center this week, with images of children separated from their parents and held in cages along the border in newspapers and TV news.
The White House flip-flopped on its explanations and who was to blame, as shown by a damning video in the Washington Post. Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at stopping the same separations the White House said previously could only be ended by Congress.
Even that didn’t stop the outcry, with critics pointing out that it would still allow family separations in some cases and that it would allow indefinite detention of families.
While children would not be taken from their parents to be put in federal facilities, they would be held together with their respective families until immigration prosecution could take place. Trump’s executive order noted this would require legal changes, saying that he wanted U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions to renegotiate the Reno v. Flores decision, also referred to as the Flores settlement.
This settlement says that immigrants under the age of 18 must be released “without unnecessary delay.”
The executive order did little to soften the criticism of the administration’s immigration policies.
A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said she backed the executive order.
“The Governor strongly supports the executive order to keep immigrant families together and hopes that the decision will be upheld by the courts so that the federal government won’t be forced to return to the failed policy of catch and release,” spokesman Ben Cloutier told NM Political Report. “Without action from congress, we’re left with two unpalatable options: a failed policy of catch and release or the separation of families. But there’s a third option, Congress can finally act on comprehensive immigration reform and fix this broken system.”
Cloutier said it was on Congress to fix the immigration problem.
Thursday, a day after Trump’s executive order, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber joined other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Tornillo, Texas facility that holds immigrant children.
“These are dark days in America, especially along the border,” Keller said during a press conference. “When we hear our leaders echo language that sounds eerily similar to Jim Crow, to internment camps, to the Holocaust. When we see our country take actions that literally betray basic humanity, these are dark days.”
Keller and his wife, Elizabeth Kistin Keller, both traveled to the border facility Thursday.
Webber recalled some previous statements Trump had made.
“The President has signed an executive order. This is the same president who began his campaign by declaring that Mexicans are rapists and murderers,” Webber said. “This is the same president who has run on the idea of a wall to separate people rather than a bridge to connect people.”
State Attorney General Hector Balderas led 20 other attorneys general from around the country sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier in the week demanding he end separation of families.
“The latest move to unnecessarily separate families is cruel and another example of this administration putting politics ahead of people,” Balderas said in announcing the letter. “Because of these concerns and the overwhelming views of Americans that we must protect the best interests and safety of all children and domestic violence victims, we demand that the Department of Justice immediately cease these draconian practices.”
The other attorneys general included those from California and Massachusetts.
Trump’s reversal came two days after the letter.
Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, announced earlier this week that they would travel to Tornillo and the El Paso Border Patrol Station Friday. Heinrich will also host a rally in Albuquerque at the National Hispanic Culture Center on Saturday protesting the administration’s actions.
Heinrich was not impressed by the Trump executive order.
“Children have been separated from their parents by not only a border but in some cases by thousands of miles with no plan for reunification,” Heinrich said. “Each and every child needs to be accounted for and returned to their parents and it is incumbent on President Trump to fix the crisis that he created.”
Udall said the executive order “does not actually guarantee this horrible practice ends,” saying the only alternative was holding families at federal detention centers indefinitely. He also questioned if reunification would take place.
“This executive order won’t do anything to repair the life-long trauma that the president’s abhorrent family separation policy has caused thousands of children and parents,” Udall said. “And most troublingly, the president’s executive order includes no plan to reunite these thousands of traumatized children with their mothers and fathers.”
Confusion over the topic of reunification reigned, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services first told reporters there were no plans for reunification of families split apart by the Trump administration policy, even after Trump announced the executive order. Then another HHS official said the previous spokesperson “misspoke.”
Some governors, before the executive order, announced they would no longer provide National Guard resources to help with border enforcement.
Earlier in the week, Ben Ray Lujan toured a facility, dubbed a “tender age” facility by Trump administration.
Afterward, he said at a congressional roundtable, according to the San Antonio Express-News, “It was just heartbreaking. They look at you with big eyes… Seeing baby Roger there, it really got me.”
Roger was an 8-month-old child held apart from his parents at the Tornillo facility.
Legislators weigh in
Democratic state legislators also spoke out. Brian Egolf, in a statement Wednesday afternoon, said the executive order “is a half-measure that itself violates the law and merely perpetuates the problems President Trump himself created.”
Egolf praised Attorney General Balderas for “leading his fellow Attorneys General in this critical effort.”
Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen traveled to Tornillo on Tuesday, ahead of the executive order.
After the order, she told the Las Cruces Sun-News that she was waiting to see “what he’s really reversed and what’s really happening” before she gave credit to Trump.
Update: Added information about letter from Hector Balderas.