Trump says ending family separation was ‘disaster’ that led to surge in border crossings

(Eric Gay | The Associated Press) In this March 14, 2019, file photo, a group of migrant families walk from the Rio Grande, the river separating the U.S. and Mexico in Texas, near McAllen, Texas, right before being apprehended by Border Patrol. U.S. border authorities say they’ve started to increase the biometric data they take from children 13 years of age and younger, including fingerprints, despite privacy concerns and government policy intended to restrict what can be collected from migrant youth.

Washington • President Donald Trump said in a television interview Sunday that ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings has been “a disaster” that has resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally, though he overstated the increase as measured by the government.

Trump said the practice had served as an effective "disincentive" for people who wish to enter the country illegally.

"Now you don't get separated, and while that sounds nice and all, what happens is you have literally you have 10 times as many families coming up because they're not going to be separated from their children," Trump told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo. "It's a disaster."

Although U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows a significant rise in illegal immigration since the family separation practice ended this past June amid a public outcry, it shows that the number of illegal crossings is now six times as high rather than 10 times as high.

The interview took place as Bartiromo stood on the southern border, with Trump calling into the show.

“When they used to separate children, which was done during the Obama administration, with Bush, with us, with everybody, far fewer people would come,” Trump said. “And we’ve been on a humane basis, it was pretty bad — we go out and we stop the separations. The problem is you have 10 times as many people coming up with their families. It’s like Disneyland now.”

The practice of separating children from their parents was done on a far more limited basis under previous administrations. In most instances, children were separated when federal officials had concerns about their safety while in their parents' care.

The Trump administration was the first to initiate separations on a widespread basis for the purpose of deterring illegal migration. It implemented a “zero tolerance” policy last year that separated more than 2,700 children from their parents last spring.

Under the practice, adults were taken to immigration jails and were prosecuted for entering the country illegally. Their children were sometimes detained in chain-link holding pens and then sent to shelters overseen by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Trump ended the practice in June in the face of condemnation from some Republicans and growing evidence that his administration had not developed a plan to reunite families.

Images of children in the chain-link holding pens — which were likened to animal cages — also prompted public outcry and played a role in ending the separation practice. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction, ordering Trump to reunite families and end the practice, effectively preventing him from reinstituting it.

The controversy generated by the separations and Trump's much publicized move to end the practice is viewed by some as having contributed to the soaring numbers of Central American families crossing the border.

Last month, U.S. authorities processed more than 103,000 migrants, the highest number in more than a decade.

Wait times at the ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border have risen as the Trump administration diverts officers to handle an influx of immigrants, leaving trucks backed up for hours and industry leaders warning of possible produce shortages and supply-chain interruptions.

In his interview Sunday, Trump repeated past comments he has made on the topic, including his desire to change immigration laws. "We tried to get rid of them; the Democrats won't do it."

Trump also credited himself with improving the economy, saying that the downside is that it is fueling illegal immigration.

"People are pouring out because our economy is so good. . . . Everyone wants a piece of it," he said, adding that the uptick in border crossing is "the combination of having a great economy and having the weakest immigration laws anywhere in the world by far."

The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.