Donald Trump has defended his controversial zero tolerance immigration policy, saying he will not allow the US to become a “migrant camp” – even as activists claimed separating children from their families was “nothing short of torture”.
The president has been been under mounting criticism after it emerged that at least 2,000 young people had been taken from their families since the introduction last month of a new immigration policy, under attorney general Jeff Sessions, that criminally charged everybody apprehended illegally crossing the border. This has been the policy adopted even for those people seeking asylum.
Over the weekend, images emerged of the facilities where these migrant children, mostly from Central America, are being held. One facility near El Paso, Texas, was a “tent city”, while photographs from another camp near McAllen, also in the Lone Star State, showed chain link fences, mattresses on the floor and families queueing to be processed.
Speaking at the White House, Mr Trump was defiant, saying “the United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be”.
He added: “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places – we can’t allow that to happen to the United States, not on my watch.”
The weight of criticism against the policy, which Mr Trump has wrongly sought to blame on the previous administration, has included former first lady Laura Bush and numerous religious leaders. Mr Sessions’ church in Alabama has condemned the policy as “unjust”, while over the weekend Mr Trump’ wife, Melania, said she “hates to see children separated from their families”.
Critics of Mr Trump, who made a crackdown on immigration a central theme of his election campaign, say he is using the young people as a bargaining chip. They claim he is trying to persuade Democrats in Congress to release sufficient funds to enable him to construct a wall along the US’s southern border with Mexico, another of his campaign promises.
The president is set to travel to Capitol Hill later this week to discuss options for new immigration.
In the meantime, Mr Trump and his top officials have defended the policy of separating young people, and the conditions in which they are being held. “They’re not put in jail, of course. They’re taken care of,” Mr Sessions said at the National Sheriffs’ Association convention in New Orleans.
Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the same conference the administration had nothing to say sorry for.
“We have to do our job. We will not apologise for doing our job,” she said. “This administration has a simple message: if you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”
At the same time, the barrage of criticism has been widespread and appears to be growing. The United Nations’ top human rights official called Mr Trump’s policy “unconscionable”.
Speaking at the opening of a regular Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged the US authorities to end a zero tolerance policy that has seen almost 2,000 children taken from their families in the past six weeks. “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said Mr Hussein.
Amnesty International claimed the images that emerged over the weekend would “leave an indelible stain on the reputation of the US”.
“This is a spectacularly cruel policy, where frightened children are being ripped from their parent’s arms and taken to overflowing detention centres, which are effectively cages. This is nothing short of torture,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director
“The severe mental suffering that officials have intentionally inflicted on these families for coercive purposes means that these acts meet the definitions of torture under both US and international law.”
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