WASHINGTON — Almost immediately after President Trump took office, his administration began weighing what for years had been regarded as the nuclear option in the effort to discourage immigrants from unlawfully entering the United States.
Children would be separated from their parents if the families had been apprehended entering the country illegally, John F. Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, said in March 2017, “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.’’
For more than a decade, even as illegal immigration levels fell overall, seasonal spikes in unauthorized border crossings had bedeviled US presidents in both political parties, prompting them to cast about for increasingly aggressive ways to discourage migrants from making the trek.
Yet for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the idea of crying children torn from their parents’ arms was simply too inhumane — and too politically perilous — to embrace as policy, and Trump, though he had made an immigration crackdown one of the central issues of his campaign, succumbed to the same reality, publicly dropping the idea after Kelly’s comments touched off a swift backlash.
But advocates inside the administration, most prominently Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, never gave up on the idea. Last month, facing a sharp uptick in illegal border crossings, Trump ordered a new effort to criminally prosecute anyone who crossed the border unlawfully — with few exceptions for parents traveling with their minor children.
And now Trump faces the consequences. With thousands of children detained in makeshift shelters, his spokesmen this past week had to deny accusations that the administration was acting like Nazis. Even evangelical supporters like Franklin Graham said its policy was “disgraceful.’’
Among those who have professed objections to the policy is the president himself, who despite his tough rhetoric on immigration and his clear directive to show no mercy in enforcing the law, has searched publicly for someone else to blame for dividing families. He has falsely claimed that Democrats are responsible for the practice. But the kind of pictures so feared by Trump’s predecessors could end up defining a major domestic policy issue of his term.
Trump is set to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss immigration, The Washington Post reported.
Inside the Trump administration, current and former officials say, there is considerable unease about the policy, which is regarded by some charged with carrying it out as unfeasible in practice and questionable morally. Kirstjen Nielsen, the current homeland security secretary, has clashed privately with Trump over the practice.
But Miller has expressed none of the president’s misgivings. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,’’ he said during an interview in his West Wing office this past week. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.’’
The administration’s critics are not buying that explanation. “This is not a zero-tolerance policy, this is a zero-humanity policy, and we can’t let it go on,’’ said Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.
“Ripping children out of their parents’ arms to inflict harm on the child to influence the parents,’’ he added, “is unacceptable.’’
Beyond those moral objections, Jeh C. Johnson, who as secretary of homeland security was the point man for the Obama administration’s own struggles with illegal immigration, argued that deterrence, in and of itself, is neither practical nor a long-term solution to the problem.
When Central American migrants, including many unaccompanied children, began surging across the border in early 2014, Obama, the antithesis of his impulsive successor, had his own characteristic reaction: He formed a multiagency team at the White House to figure out what should be done.
“This was the bane of my existence for three years,’’ Johnson said. “No matter what you did, somebody was going to be very angry at you.’’
Officials met in the office of Denis R. McDonough, Obama’s White House chief of staff, and convened a series of meetings in the Situation Room to go through their options. Migrants were increasingly exploiting existing immigration laws and court rulings, and using children as a way to get adults into the country, on the theory that families were being treated differently from single people.
They decided to vastly expand the detention of immigrant families, opening new facilities along the border where women and young children were held for long periods while they awaited a chance to have their cases processed.
Immigrant advocacy groups denounced the policy, berating senior administration officials — some of whom were reduced to rueful apologies for a policy they said they could not justify — and telling Obama to his face during a meeting at the White House in late 2014 that he was turning his back on the most vulnerable people seeking refuge in the United States.
“I was pissed, and still am,’’ said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I thought that he had a shocking disregard for due process.’’
It was Bush, who had firsthand experience with the border as governor of Texas and ran for president as a “compassionate conservative,’’ who initiated the zero-tolerance approach for illegal immigration on which Trump’s policy is modeled.
In 2005, he launched Operation Streamline, a program along a stretch of the border in Texas that referred all unlawful entrants for criminal prosecution, imprisoning them and expediting assembly-line-style trials geared toward quickly deporting them.
Obama’s administration employed the program at the height of the migration crisis as well, although it generally did not treat first-time border crossers as priorities for prosecution, and it detained families together in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody — administrative, rather than criminal, detention.
Discussions began almost immediately after Trump took office about vastly expanding Operation Streamline, with almost none of those limitations. Even after Kelly stopped talking publicly about family separation, the Department of Homeland Security quietly tested the approach last summer in certain areas in Texas.