President Donald Trump signs an executive order stopping the separation of immigration families, as DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (L) and Vice President Mike Pence look on in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo
June 20 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order ending the practice of separating families at the U.S.-Mexican border.
"It's about keeping families together while at the same time being sure that we have a very powerful and very strong border," Trump said. "And border security will be equal if not greater than previously.
"I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."
Trump said his immigration policy "continues to be zero tolerance."
"We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally," he said.
Under the order, entire immigrant families would be detained together by the Department of Homeland Security pending legal and court proceedings for the parents. Children would only be separated from their parents if their safety is at risk.
Trump also ordered the Justice Department to expedite the adjudication of cases involving families with children when possible.
The executive order calls on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek a change in the so-called Flores settlement, which prohibits immigrant children from being detained for more than 20 days.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services -- which is responsible for housing and caring for the already separated children -- told NBC News it has no new orders on how to handle the children in its custody.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he supported the executive order.
"No one wants to separate families and the president's action will ensure that those who are crossing our border illegally are detained and our laws are enforced," he said. "I continue to urge Congress to move forward with an immigration plan that includes increased enforcement resources, a border wall, and reforms to the immigration process."
The Anti-Defamation League, though, said the order is not a humane solution.
"The solution to family separation is not indefinite family detention," the organization said. "Children do not belong in jail."
The order is a reversal for the president and his administration. In a speech Tuesday, he said congressional action was the way to resolve the issue.
The Trump administration has been under increasing pressure from the public, religious leaders and Democrats in Congress, as well as most Republicans to end the practice of separating children from parents at border detention facilities.
Until Wednesday, Trump had held firm on the matter.
"We're having a lot of problems with Democrats that don't want to vote for anything," he said. "They don't care about lack of security. They really would like to have open borders where anybody in the world can just flow in, including from the Middle East, from anybody anywhere they can just flow into our country."
On Wednesday afternoon, congressional Democrats gathered on the Capitol steps to protest the practice of child separation.
"When the president said these actions are not of his doing, he is not telling the truth," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said.
"The truth is ... his administration instituted the zero-tolerance policy, which again is a disgrace to our nation, it is a stain on our history and it hurts these little children."
Meanwhile, in Congress, House Republicans are planning to vote on two bills to address immigration -- a moderate bill introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan that ends family separation and offers a path to citizenship to some immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and a more conservative bill authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Goodlatte's bill seeks to end family-based "chain migration," authorizes construction of a border wall, adds Border Patrol agents and creates an agricultural guest worker program.