President Donald Trump defended his decision to reverse course on separating undocumented immigrant families at the border during a rally in Duluth, Minnesota on Wednesday night, telling an energetic audience the change would not weaken his border strategy.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order to keep families together at the border, but he said that "zero-tolerance" prosecution will continue.
Trump changed policy amid fierce backlash to his administration's controversial immigration policy separating migrant children from their parents charged with entering the country illegally.
The order expands the time minors can be held in custody, allowing families to remain together. Critics say that means kids could be kept in custody longer than they can now.
"We still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don't stand for and that we don't want," Trump said during a Wednesday meeting with members of Congress at the White House, according to CBS News. "So I'm going to be signing an executive order in a little while before I go to Minnesota. But at the same time I think you have to understand we are keeping families together, but we have to keep our borders strong."
Calling the measure "somewhat preemptive," he also called on Congress to work toward a more permanent fix, perhaps with legislation that both prevents family separation and addresses border security concerns.
"Beyond this one problem of immigration— you can mention the word 'comprehensive' or you don't have to use it," Mr. Trump said. "A lot of politicians don't like the word 'comprehensive immigration reform,' but I really think we have an opportunity to do the whole immigration picture and that's what I'm looking to do ultimately. But right now we want to fix this problem and I think we'll be able to do that."
He also asked Democrats for support: "They really would like to have open borders where they can just flow in," Trump said of congressional Democrats.
"We want security for our country. The Republicans want security and insist on security for our country and we will have that. At the same time we have compassion. We want to keep families together," he said Wednesday.
CNN reports that First Lady Melania Trump has been working for several days behind the scenes encouraging Trump to keep families together, according to a White House official. Melania Trump reportedly had several private conversations with her husband, pushing him to do all he can to keep families intact at the border.
Previously, Melania Trump issued a statement on the topic of family separation calling on "both sides of the aisle" to work together on immigration reform. The statement did not directly address the President.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also reportedly had a large role in Trump's role reversal, with the White House official telling CNN she had been at the White House all morning in the room with the President and key staff.