Victims’ families take plea to White House for stringent border laws

President Donald Trump lauded the Angel Family members, who praised him in return for his tough immigration rhetoric, during their visit to the White House on Friday. (Photo by Pat Poblete/Cronkite News)

President Donald Trump autographed photos held by Angel Family members, including Mesa’s Mary Ann Mendoza, right, of loved ones they lost to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Pat Poblete/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Critics of the administration’s policy of separating families at the border called it the equivalent of “psychological torture,” and even President Donald Trump said he did not like it as he ordered the policy reversed this week.

But the “Angel Families” who went to the White House Friday told the president that separation is a small price to pay for border security. The families, including two from Arizona, held pictures of their loved ones and shared stories as they praised the administration’s policies – and they found a receptive audience in the president.

“These are the stories that Democrats and people that are weak on immigration, they don’t want to discuss, they don’t want to hear, they don’t want to see, they don’t want to talk about,” Trump said. “They don’t talk about the death and destruction caused by people who shouldn’t be here.”

Among those who did want to talk about it were Arizonans Mary Ann Mendoza and Steve Ronnebeck. Mendoza’s son, Mesa Police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza, was killed in 2014 by a drunken driver who was in this country illegally, while Ronnebeck’s son, Grant, was fatally shot in the robbery of a convenience store where he was working.

“This is permanent separation,” Ronnebeck said of Grant’s 2015 killing by an undocumented immigrant. “For his birthday, I go to his grave. For Christmas, I set up a Christmas tree on Grant’s grave.”

Trump on Wednesday reversed his administration’s policy of separating families at the border if they tried to enter the country illegally.

The separations were an outgrowth of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on border enforcement that the Justice Department announced in April, saying anyone caught trying to enter illegally would be referred for criminal prosecution.

Because authorities can only hold children for 20 days before they have to be released, the administration said it was forced to separate children from their parents to avoid so-called “catch and release” of undocumented immigrants.

The resulting images and videos of crying children sparked a firestorm of criticism from advocates across the political spectrum and officials as diverse as former first ladies and members of Congress – including Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.

“It is psychological torture, what this administration is doing,” said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York, in a rally by Democrats on Wednesday. “And the Republicans in Congress are tolerating it, they are promoting it, promoting psychological torture against these young children.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, said at the same rally that the way to halt illegal immigration is not to divide families but to stop “the rape, and the abuse and the exploitation of these children” in their home countries.

“They are going to continue to come, fleeing for their lives. Separating children from their parents only continues to traumatize and abuse the very people coming here seeking relief,” Gutierrez said.

Trump, who had claimed that his hands were tied by immigration laws approved by Democrats, signed an executive order Wednesday reversing the policy, saying authorities should “maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

But he did not back down from the zero-tolerance policy, and he pledged again to the Angel Families that “we’re going to have a safe country.”

That is what Mendoza, Ronnebeck and the 11 other family members at the White House wanted to hear.

“President Trump, Vice President Pence, you’ve been there for us and there are no words to describe what your support and your caring has meant to each and an every one of us,” Mendoza said.