President Donald Trump claimed that the only options for immigration enforcement are releasing all undocumented immigrants into the country on their own recognizance or prosecuting them criminally and separating parents and children.
Speaking before the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday afternoon, Trump defended a policy that has led to 2,000 children being separated from their parents by claiming that there were no alternatives.
“We can either release all illegal immigrant families and minors who show up at the border from Central America, or we can arrest the adults for the federal crime of illegal entry,” he said.
By law, when adults are detained and criminally prosecuted, their children cannot be kept with them in jail, and a 2016 court ruling shut down federally run family detention centers. But the Bush and Obama administrations generally declined to prosecute adults who were caught traveling with their children, handling them through an administrative process or releasing them with GPS ankle bracelets.
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. would prosecute everyone caught crossing illegally, a policy change which requires that children be separated from parents being held while they await trial. Recent polls show two-thirds of Americans oppose the family separation policy, which Trump has falsely blamed on Democrats.
Speaking to the NFIB, Trump called on Congress to give him “the legal authority to detain and promptly remove families together as a unit.”
Trump also argued that Democrats support illegal immigration because they view immigrants as “potential voters.” “Someday they’re going to vote for Democrats,” he said.
Federal and state laws bar non-citizens from registering to vote or voting in elections other than a few towns and cities which allow it in local races, and multiple nationwide studies have found only a handful of incidents of non-citizens actually casting ballots.
Trump also argued that undocumented immigrants were risking their children’s lives, and he again warned about the dangers of the violent Central American gang MS-13.
“People that come in violate the law, they endanger their children in the process, and frankly they endanger all of our children,” he said. “You see what happens with MS-13 where your sons and daughters are attacked violently. Kids that never even heard of such a thing are being attacked violently, not with guns but with knives, because it’s much more painful.”
And as he has before, Trump lamented the family separations, but said they were a side effect of enforcing the law.
“We’ve got to stop separation of the families, but politically correct or not, we have a country that needs security, that needs safety, that has to be protected,” he said.
Later Tuesday, Trump will head to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers searching for a compromise on this issue. A top aide to Senate Republicans tells TIME that Trump has already thrown a wrench into the process by demanding $25 billion for a border wall to be included in whatever bill is brought to his desk.