Donald Trump has told Republicans trying to pass immigration legislation he is behind them “1,000 per cent” and that he would sign either of two bills they are working on, amid bipartisan and international outrage over the policy causing children to be separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
Members of Congress are trying to fulfil the president’s demand for immigration reform while bringing an end to the controversy caused by his administration’s “zero tolerance” stance toward migrants and asylum seekers entering the country without permission, all of whom, attorney general Jeff Sessions has said, will face criminal charges. Their children cannot legally be taken to jail, so are detained elsewhere.
Images and recordings of very young children crying for their parents while housed in cages and sleeping under foil blankets have galvanised opposition to Mr Trump’s policy, leading to protests – including against homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was disturbed by cries of “Shame!” as she ate at a Mexican restaurant on Tuesday.
Some 2,300 children have been forcibly separated from their parents since May, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) figures showed. Toddlers are detained in so-called “tender-age shelters”, where lawyers and doctors described play rooms of crying pre-school age children in emotional distress.
Steven Wagner, of the DHS, sought to defend the conditions in which the children were kept, saying: “We have specialised facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs, and tender age children as we define as under 13 would fall into that category.
“They’re not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they’re staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs – particularly of the younger children.”
But at least one of the detention centres, in Brownsville, Texas, is inside a building that was previously a supermarket, US media reported.
A poll suggested the policy was deeply unpopular with the American public, with just 28 per cent of those questioned between 16 and 19 June telling Reuters/Ipsos researchers they supported it.
A string of state governors have refused to deploy National Guard resources to the border, with Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, calling the separation policy “cruel and inhuman”.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday he did “not want” to separate families but that his administration’s hand had been forced by “loopholes” introduced by Democrats. Yet the policy has been repeatedly described by officials, including Mr Sessions and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, as an intentional “deterrent”, and supporters of Mr Trump say he could end the separations.
Senator Lindsey Graham has said the billionaire “could stop this policy with a phone call”.
Mr Trump continued to blame his opponents for the policy on Tuesday and defended it using incendiary language. He tweeted: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”
On Wednesday he painted his approach as anti-crime, retreading familiar territory. He tweeted: “The Fake News is not mentioning the safety and security of our Country when talking about illegal immigration. Our immigration laws are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world, and the Dems will do anything not to change them & to obstruct-want open borders which means crime!”
At the very start of his presidential campaign, Mr Trump attracted a storm of criticism for saying Mexico was sending “rapists” over the border. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in June 2015. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
As candidate and president, he has long cited the predations of MS-13, a gang with roots in central America, as one reason for his tough approach to migration.
Republicans fear a voter backlash at November’s mid-term elections if the separations issue is not solved. But even if they pass an immigration bill in the House it is likely to stall in the Senate, where Democrats oppose Mr Trump’s hardline stance and, particularly, his desire for a border wall between the US and Mexico.
On Tuesday, members of Congress met with the president to discuss how to move forward, and party leaders scrambled to draw up a revised version of their broader immigration plans that would keep children in detention longer than currently permitted – but together with their families.
The major change unveiled on Tuesday would relax rules limiting the amount of time children can be held to 20 days, and allow them to be detained indefinitely with their parents.
Only one of the two Republican bills would create a path to citizenship for migrants brought to the US illegally as children – the so-called “dreamers”. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals scheme is now being phased out and Mr Trump has called on Congress to create new protections for dreamers.
Also on Tuesday, a paediatrician based in Colorado posted a Facebook message describing the “trauma” suffered by three young children separated from their parents, who she said had been detained by authorities.
Dr Tara Neubrand, of Denver, said: “These children, in all cases, clung so tightly, and so completely, to their foster mothers, both in the emergency department and at home, that they were literally unable to be put down.
“They didn’t explore the world, they were terrified that their world would be broken for a second time. Their trauma, and the direct effect it was having on their development, was obvious.
“One foster mother told me that she couldn’t figure out how to bathe the little girl properly. Since she would scream every time she tried to leave her or put her down, she couldn’t safely get her into the bathtub.
“These were experienced foster families. They understood and had dealt with traumatised children in the past. This was not new territory for them. What they hadn’t dealt with was the complete lack of a timeline or plan for reconciliation.”
Trump administration officials have admitted they do not yet have a plan for bringing separated families back together.
Mr Wagner, the DHS acting assistant secretary, said: “We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication [of their cases].”
Dr Neubrand admitted she could not “independently verify” the information given to her by the foster parents.
Additional reporting by agencies
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies