President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order to keep families together at the border while their immigration cases are processed.
Trump said his order maintains border security but shows compassion toward migrant families, pushing back on criticism from former President Barack Obama and others that his administration has been cruel.
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"We're keeping families together and this will solve that problem at the same we are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero tolerance," he said at the White House. "We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally."
The Trump administration has implemented a zero-tolerance immigration policy, under which all individuals who cross the border illegally, including those who claim to seek asylum, are charged with unlawful entry. Federal law prohibits children from being held in the same detention facility as those charged with unlawful entry, so border patrol agents have separated children from their parents who are prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally.
Trump insisted that the problem of keeping the border safe while treating families well has been mishandled by many past presidents, but added that his order will keep families together.
"It's about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure we have a very powerful, very strong border, and border security will be equal, if not greater than, previously," he said. "I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated. It's a problem that's gone on for many years, as you know, through many administrations."
Vice President Mike Pence was at the signing ceremony in the Oval Office and commended Trump's leadership and "the compassion and the heart" being shown to families.
"I think what the president has made clear is we believe it's a false choice between whether we are a country of law and order or with borders and a country that demonstrates a compassion and the heart of the American people with respect for families," Pence said.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has been a visible defender of the administration's actions at the border, said Congress must pass a law to permanently change the family policy.
"We look forward and expect the House to act this week. We ask them to do their job," Nielsen said. "The laws need to be changed. This is a problem that president after president has dealt with for decades."
Trump celebrated how the order will help people.
"You are going to have a lot of happy people," Trump said as he signed the order. "This has been going on for 60 years. Sixty years, Nobody's taken care of it. Nobody's had the political courage to take care of it."
He also mentioned First Lady Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka wanting the family separations to stop.