President Trump on Tuesday ruled out a restart of family separations at the border, but a top administration aide laid out an expansive agenda they hope to accomplish otherwise, including rules to make it tougher to claim asylum and powers to let the administration detain illegal immigrant families who jump the border.
Stymied by Congress and the courts, the administration has gone through a major upheaval over the past week, with the White House shuffling personnel and demanding faster action on changes that officials say can be made without legislation from Capitol Hill or rulings from Obama-appointed judges.
A senior administration official also said they want more emphasis on deporting fugitives who have been ordered removed but refuse to go.
They also are looking at trying to curtail the remittances immigrants send back home, looking to erase some of the economic incentive that draws them to the U.S., the official told reporters Tuesday, laying out a sweeping agenda for acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who is slated to start the job Wednesday.
One option that won’t be on the table is a return to last year’s zero-tolerance policy, which spawned the family separations that left such a black eye for Mr. Trump.
“We’re not looking to do that,” the president told reporters at the White House.
He seemed somewhat wistful, saying that without the punishment of zero tolerance, “it brings a lot more people to the border.” He bristled at taking so much heat for something he said happened under his predecessor.
“Just so you understand, President Obama separated the children,” Mr. Trump said. “Those cages that were shown — I think they were very inappropriate — were by President Obama’s administration, not by Trump. President Obama had child separation.”
He challenged reporters in the Oval Office: “The press knows it. You know it. We all know it. I’m the one who stopped it. President Obama had child separation.”
The senior administration official who briefed reporters even as Mr. Trump was speaking said that while unilateral family separations are off the table, a policy dubbed “binary choice” is still being considered.
That plan would put the decision into the hands of illegal immigrant parents: agree to be held together as a family, longer than 20 days in detention, or accept a brief separation while their case is processed and then be deported with their children.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while binary choice is an option, some major hurdles would have to be overcome.
One roadblock is resources. The government has fewer than 3,000 beds to hold family members overall, and border agents are catching more than 2,000 a day. It takes weeks or months to complete a deportation case.
“Binary choice is not something that’s been brought to the White House,” the official said.
The official said the biggest solutions must come from Congress, which with a two-page bill could change the 2015 Flores settlement court ruling and the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act that have created the loopholes that immigrants are exploiting to gain entry to the U.S.
But lacking action from Congress, the official said, he expects the new leadership at the Department of Homeland Security to pursue unilateral moves.
One would be to try through regulation to create wiggle room in the Flores settlement, which under a 2015 update limits how long immigrant families can be held in detention. Another would be to have U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put more emphasis on tracking down illegal immigrants already ordered deported.
A third move would tighten the standards for immigrants looking to begin asylum claims at the border.
Asked whether the administration has plans to go after remittances, the official said, “Yes,” but didn’t elaborate.
“This is about leaving everything on the field. It’s about doing everything possible within the constraints of current law,” the official said.
The official wouldn’t guess how much of the illegal immigrant problem could be changed by those unilateral moves.
Immigrant rights activists chided the administration.
“They want it to get worse,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for America’s Voice. “They want the chaos at the border to be front and center in their voters’ minds and their unflinchingly harsh approach to children and families seeking asylum.”
Mr. Rivlin said many of the ideas the White House is talking about are illegal.
The administration got another taste of that this week when a federal judge in California ruled against one of the president’s unilateral actions, the “remain in Mexico” policy for Central American asylum-seekers.
Judge Richard Seeborg, an Obama appointee, said in his Monday ruling that the policy was too dangerous in Mexico and that the government cut too many corners.
The White House said Tuesday that it will appeal his ruling.
“Time and time again, we have seen a single district court unilaterally rewriting, suspending or terminating immigration law for the whole nation — creating an unprecedented crisis on our southern border,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The options were discussed as the government revealed the latest grim numbers from the border.
More than 103,000 illegal immigrants were nabbed attempting to enter without permission in March, marking the worst month since 2007. It’s also a 35% increase over February.
A senior administration official said given those trends, they had been on track for 150,000 in April, but they believe they may avert that thanks to more action by Mexican authorities to deter migrants from Central America from crossing their territory.
Still, the March numbers broke records for families.
Of the 103,492 migrants nabbed at the border, about 11,000 were stopped trying to enter the legal border crossings without permission. The rest were arrested by the Border Patrol while trying to sneak into the U.S.
Of those 92,607 arrests, more than 67% came as unaccompanied children or parents and children traveling together. That is a record. By contrast, under Mr. Obama at the beginning of the decade, only about 10% of illegal immigrants were children or families.