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WASHINGTON — Almost immediately after President Trump took office, his administration began weighing what for years had been regarded as the nuclear option in the effort to discourage immigrants from unlawfully entering the United States.
Children would be separated from their parents if the families had been apprehended entering the country illegally, John F. Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, said in March 2017, “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.”
For more than a decade, even as illegal immigration levels fell overall, seasonal spikes in unauthorized border crossings had bedeviled American presidents in both political parties, prompting them to cast about for increasingly aggressive ways to discourage migrants from making the trek.
Yet for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the idea of crying children torn from their parents’ arms was simply too inhumane — and too politically perilous — to embrace as policy, and Mr. Trump, though he had made an immigration crackdown one of the central issues of his campaign, succumbed to the same reality, publicly dropping the idea after Mr. Kelly’s comments touched off a swift backlash.