Trump denies he'll revive family separations, distorts Obama border policy: Analysis

Obama separated families in rare circumstances when child's safety was at risk

April 9, 2019, 5:48 PM

President Donald Trump denied reports Tuesday that his administration was considering reviving a policy that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their families.

Then he grossly mischaracterized the facts by repeating his assertion that President Barack Obama "separated the children" and that "I'm the one that stopped it."

The president's statements to reporters in the Oval Office came after Trump forced out top officials at the Homeland Security Department, including Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, out of frustration that more wasn't being done to curb record-setting migration of families from Central America.

After ABC News' Jon Karl asked Trump repeatedly whether he planned to separate families again, Trump said no but added that families are coming in droves to the U.S. because there are no repercussions.

"President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it," he said.

This significantly misrepresents U.S. immigration history.

Under Obama and President George W. Bush, the U.S. border officials separated families in rare circumstances when the child's safety might be at risk. Officials have said this typically happened when authorities questioned whether the child belonged to the adult, or if a serious crime like drug smuggling was committed.

In contrast, the Trump administration enacted a "zero-tolerance" approach in April 2018 that called for stepped-up prosecutions of any adult crossing the border illegally, even without evidence of a serious crime. The result was some 2,700 children were separated from their families in a matter of weeks.

Trump backed down in June 2018 amid a fierce public backlash, and a federal judge ordered that the administration reunite the children.

While the president said his administration was not looking to bring back zero-tolerance, he added that migration numbers were on the rise without family separations.

"I will tell you something -- once you don't have it, that's why you see many more people coming," he said. "They’re coming like it's a picnic. Because 'Let's go to Disneyland.' "

U.S. officials predict that the number of undocumented migrants stopped at the border could top 1 million this year, almost double of Trump's first year in office. The number is not quite on par with the early 2000s, but it represents a dramatic shift in the types of people coming. Rather than single men from Mexico looking for work, officials say most people stopped at the border are families from Central America.

According to numbers released Tuesday by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of families apprehended in the month of March alone – about 53,000 – is double of what it was just two months ago. And almost 9,000 older kids and teens traveling alone were apprehended last month.

The influx raises questions about whether the administration may have inadvertently encouraged migrants to travel to the U.S. because of zero-tolerance. After a federal judge ruled against the policy, it became clear to the public that there was little the administration could do to detain anyone traveling with a child for a long period of time. A court mandate prevents children from being held in custody for longer than 20 days.

Trump also accused Obama of building "cages" that he thought were "very inappropriate."

"They were built by the President Obama's administration, not by Trump," the president said.

Trump is likely referring to 2014 photos, taken by The Associated Press, that some liberal activists circulated online last year and falsely tying the photos to Trump. The photos showed children being held temporarily at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz. After young migrants are processed, if they are traveling alone, they are released into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. Families are typically released pending a court date.

Cecilia Munoz, President Obama's Director of the Domestic Policy Council told NPR last year that in 2014, amid a surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America, U.S. officials were strained in trying to process the children quickly. As a result, "kids ended up kind of piling up in Border Patrol lockups, which are no places for children."

ABC News' Quinn Owen and Jon Karl contributed to this report.