MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For days, President Trump has refused to back away from a policy of splitting families who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Today that changed. Trump signed an executive order ending the policy. Here he is at a White House signing ceremony today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's about keeping families together while at the same time being sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border. And border security will be equal if not greater than previously.
KELLY: He made the announcement soon after House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would bring legislation on immigration to the floor for a vote tomorrow. Well, NPR's Sarah McCammon is at the White House. And, Sarah, sounds like it's been quite a day there.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It sure has.
KELLY: All right, so details. What is - what exactly is in this executive order?
MCCAMMON: Well, I've been reading through it, and I can tell you it says that it is the policy of the administration to rigorously enforce immigration law but also to maintain family unity. And it doesn't end the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy of prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally that was announced by the administration in April and is of course what led to families being detained and separated. So this executive order today keeps that in place, but it does allow families to be detained together.
And I should say there are some caveats. It says where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. And they can't be detained together if there's concern the parent would pose a risk to the child. It calls on federal agency heads to help provide housing when appropriate. But beyond that, Mary Louise, there's not a lot of detail about where these families will be housed or how they'll be prosecuted.
KELLY: Details still to be worked out. Do we know, Sarah, what prompted this change of heart?
MCCAMMON: Well, what we do know is there's been more reporting coming out from the facilities where children are kept - these images of children corralled behind fences, pictures of crying children. And when President Trump signed the executive order today, he said he didn't like what he was hearing about.
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TRUMP: So we're going to have strong - very strong borders, but we're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.
MCCAMMON: And not only that, we know public opinion polls suggest a majority of voters oppose family separation. There's been a groundswell of opposition from a wide range of groups, including many in the president's evangelical base, reports that his daughter Ivanka and first lady Melania Trump expressed concern about this. And a White House official told us today that Melania Trump pressed the president to end family separation. So there's been mounting pressure to stop this.
KELLY: Again, this comes after days - comes after weeks of the administration insisting that the law required them to separate families. So...
KELLY: ...Did this about-face today come as a total surprise?
MCCAMMON: A big surprise. I mean, the president first of all isn't known for backing down under pressure.
MCCAMMON: And remember that his own homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said just Monday that Congress alone could fix the problem. The president has said the same. He's falsely said for days that family separation is the fault of Democrats in Congress when, as we've mentioned, this has been a Trump administration policy. What is true, though, is that Congress has failed repeatedly to pass more comprehensive immigration legislation despite many calls for it over many years. And the president said today he hopes Congress will act, but for now he's taking this action on his own.
KELLY: All right, I've also got a copy of the president's order here with me. And it's worth noting the formal title - "Affording Congress An Opportunity To Address Family Separation." What does that mean? I mean, how might this impact the broader effort to overhaul immigration?
MCCAMMON: Well, you could look at it as essentially removing a pressure tactic to force Congress to act. The president wants a lot. He wants more funding for border security, the border wall of course. He's proposed cutting back on legal immigration. The House is voting tomorrow on bills that would do those things, but they're not expected to pass. And keep in mind the midterms are coming up. As much as the president might blame the Democrats, Republicans are in control. They're up for re-election in a few months. And while being tough on immigration has been a winning issue for President Trump, he has to consider just how far he can push that in an election year, especially with these pictures of kids...
MCCAMMON: ...Being separated from their parents.
KELLY: Thank you, Sarah. That's NPR's Sarah McCammon at the White House.
MCCAMMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.