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The Bipartisan Backlash That Spurred Trump's Reversal on Family Separations

His executive order, signed on Wednesday, comes after days of governors and mayors escalating their words of opposition into actions attempting to block the immigration policy announced in April.

children separated border
In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.
(U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)
Last Updated at 3:21 p.m. ET

Facing intense pressure -- including from state and local officials of his own party -- President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that ends the practice of separating children from their families at the border.

The executive order won't end the so-called zero tolerance policy, announced in April, that leads to criminal referrals of all people caught in the country illegally. But it will allow families to stay together during periods of detention. (More on the details of the executive order here.) Under the Obama administration, families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation. 

In recent days, governors and mayors moved from simply offering words in opposition to taking steps that attempted to block the administration from continuing its policy of separating families.

GOP Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland each announced this week that they would withdraw troops from the border. Other Republican governors, including Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, also expressed varying levels of opposition. 

"While there seems to be a lot of misinformation and propaganda regarding the situation on our border, one thing is clear: Children should not be separated from their families," Ricketts wrote on Twitter. 

On the Democratic side, the governors of Colorado and New Jersey signed executive orders this week barring any state funds from being used for programs that separate families. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would sue, calling the situation "a moral failing and a human tragedy." Several other Democratic governors, including those in North Carolina and Virginia, said that they would withdraw National Guard troops and equipment from the border region.

"Given what we know about the policies currently in effect at the border, I can't in good conscience send Delawareans to help with that mission," Gov. John Carney said Tuesday, rejecting a call from the administration to send National Guard troops. "If President Trump revokes the current inhumane policy of separating children from their parents, Delaware will be first in line to assist our sister states in securing the border."

The actions that were taken by the governors were largely symbolic. Several who announced they would not deploy troops were sending less than a handful. Maryland removed four crew members and a helicopter from New Mexico -- the same mix as Virginia. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered three troops to return to North Carolina. 

At a news conference announcing his executive order, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper conceded that he was ordering a halt to something that wasn't happening. Asked whether any state resources had been used to assist the federal government in separating families, he said, "We've looked into it, and no one is aware of it."

Still, the bipartisan rebuke from governors was loud enough -- along with condemnation from members of Congress, the religious community and others -- for Trump to make a rare policy reversal. 

A bipartisan group of mayors from cities including Los Angeles, Miami and El Paso were planning to visit Tornillo, Texas, where the federal government set up a so-called tent city to house migrant children.

"One thing we all agree is this particular policy is not good for America or for families," Bryan Barnett, the Republican mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., told the El Paso Times.

While most of the state and local officials speaking out reside far from the border with Mexico, some Texas Republicans also complained.

"You have publicly suggested that your administration may end these policies if congressional Democrats agree to some of your border security objectives and positions," Joe Straus, the outgoing Republican speaker of the Texas House, wrote in a letter to Trump. "But it is wrong to use these scared, vulnerable children as a negotiation tool."

Not all Republicans were so critical. 

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster -- one of the first statewide elected officials to support Donald Trump's presidential bid -- said on Monday that he supports it "100 percent." The state had sent nine troops and a helicopter to the border to help enforce it. McMaster faces a runoff next Tuesday, and the president is coming to the state to campaign for him on Monday. 

"In my view, it's a smart strategy for McMaster, at least in the short term," says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. "For GOP primary voters in this red state, Trump's border policy is a winning issue."

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pledged to send as many as 1,400 troops -- by far the largest number of any state, has not made a public comment this week about the issue.

"Greg Abbott's continued silence is deafening," Lupe Valdez, his Democratic opponent this year, said in a news release.

GOP state Rep. Jason Villalba sent a letter to Abbott on Tuesday asking the governor to intercede with Trump on a humanitarian basis.

"These children are innocent," Villalba wrote. "These children did not make the decision to violate out laws to be in this country nor have their violated any crimes."

Dan Cadman, a fellow at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, notes that similar arguments have been used in the debate over the so-called Dreamers, who were brought here illegally as minors. But the U.S., he says, "has to clamp down on letting people think it's okay to move children across hundreds and hundreds of miles."

Cadman says the governors could better have spent their energy lobbying Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Several of them already have.

"I served in Congress, and I watched for six years as that body failed to pass a comprehensive immigration policy that would secure our borders in a way that upholds the values of this great country," said Delaware Gov. John Carney, in a statement. "Congress and the president need to step up and fix the mess that our immigration system has become."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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