Donald Trump heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon facing an extraordinary backlash from his own party – and the American public – over his policy of separating children from their parents at the southern US border.
The separations occur when, under a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, adults are arrested for crossing the border illegally. As children cannot be held in an adult jail, they are held separately.
According to a Quinnipiac University national poll, two in three voters oppose the separations. Outcry from Democratic and Republican politicians, former first ladies, churches, commentators and business leaders is gathering momentum.
The president, however, seems determined only to up the ante. On Tuesday morning he tweeted that Democrats want undocumented migrants “to pour into and infest our country.” In a lunchtime speech to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), he said the US had two options: “Totally open borders or criminal prosecution for lawbreaking.”
Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, asked: “When does public opinion become a demand that politicians just can’t ignore? Two-thirds of American voters oppose the family separation policy at our borders. Neither quotes from the Bible nor get-tough talk can soften the images of crying children nor reverse the pain so many Americans feel.”
Trump’s campaign was built around a tough stance on immigration, with “build the wall” a frequent chant at his rallies. He is now losing the battle for public opinion, though support among his base is resilient.
For example, Republicans support the zero tolerance policy at the border by 55% to 35%, the Quinnipiac survey found. And while national voters oppose building a wall on the border with Mexico by 58% to 39%, three in four Republicans back it.
One issue does cross the divide. Four in five voters support allowing undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, so-called “Dreamers” to remain and apply for citizenship. According to the Quinnipiac poll, which questioned 905 voters nationwide from 14 to 17 June, support ranges from 61% to 28% among Republicans to 94% to 5% among Democrats.
Public reaction to the border policy – according to the Department of Homeland Security, from 5 May to 9 June 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 adults – is disquieting many Republicans facing midterm elections in November. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal warned the party’s feuding over immigration is fast becoming “an election-year nightmare.” The conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was quoted by the Axios website as saying this could be “Trump’s Katrina” – a reference to the 2005 hurricane that devastated both New Orleans and the reputation of George W Bush.
Trump, who could end the crisis with a phone call, was scheduled to meet House Republicans on Tuesday afternoon in what could turn into a heated confrontation in an already sweltering Washington. His homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, has insisted: “Congress alone can fix it.”
The president is offering no concessions. “Democrats are the problem,” he wrote on Twitter. “They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
But where Republicans have previously followed Trump’s lead, prompting comparisons to a cult, the emotive images and sounds of children in fenced cages are prompting a growing number to speak out.
Fred Upton, a congressman from Michigan, urged an immediate end to the “ugly and inhumane practice”, adding: “It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process.” John McCain of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted: “The administration’s current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded. The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.”
Despite previously asserting that it would oppose any fix aimed solely at addressing the plight of children separated from their parents, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday that it is reviewing emergency legislation introduced by Ted Cruz, the hardline senator who faces a re-election fight in Texas, to keep families together.
Asked if the White House supports the Cruz measure, Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications, told reporters: “We’re looking into the legislative text on the Cruz bill.”
In his NFIB speech, however, Trump took a stand against Cruz’s proposal, which would attempt to speed up the review of immigration cases by doubling the number of judges.
“I don’t want judges,” the president said. “I want border security. I don’t want to try people. I don’t want people coming in.”
Other legislation is in the works in both the House and Senate, aiming to spare Republicans from a PR disaster. Democrats have been paying personal visits to detention centres in Texas and demanding the resignation of Nielsen.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told reporters on Tuesday that “all of the Senators of the Republican conference” support a plan that would allow children to stay with their parents in family detention centers, ending the current practice of separating families.
“We need to fix the problem and it requires a legislative solution,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference. The issue animated their weekly lunch and a consensus emerged that Congress must act, possibly as early as this week, leaders said.
But Democratic leaders disagree, arguing that the president can halt this process with this “flick of a pen”.
“You alone can fix this,” the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said to Trump, holding out his pen to emphasize how quickly the practice could be stopped. Pressed on why Democrats were reluctant to work with Republicans on legislation that addressed family separations, Schumer pointed to the Congress’ long history of inaction on immigration.
“How many times has immigration legislation passed in this Congress? How many times? Zero,” he said, adding that the measure is an “excuse by our Republican colleagues who feel the heat”.
There has been condemnation from religious leaders and from business. In Dublin, Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, told the Irish Times: “It’s heartbreaking to see the images and hear the sounds of the kids. Kids are the most vulnerable people in any society. I think that what’s happening is inhumane, it needs to stop.”
In Mexico City, the foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, expressed his government’s “most categorical and energetic condemnation” of the policy.
The majority of the children affected were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, he said, while only about 1% were Mexican. Even so, he said, Mexico had “both a moral and a constitutional responsibility” to push back against “a cruel policy, an inhuman policy.”