Donald Trump said the US would not be a “migrant camp” as his administration defended its controversial practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said during remarks at the White House on Monday.
“You look at what’s happening in Europe,” he continued, “you look at what’s happening in other places – we can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”
Trump ignored a intensifying chorus of condemnation of a zero-tolerance enforcement policy that has resulted in the separation of nearly 2,000 children from their parents in just six weeks. The separation tactic has drawn bipartisan backlash from prominent members of Congress, human rights advocates and religious leaders who have called the tactic cruel and inhumane.
Trump again tried to shift responsibility for the policy, claiming inaccurately that his administration was simply enforcing the country’s “horrible laws”.
“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” he said. In a series of tweets earlier on Monday, Trump demanded Congress “CHANGE THE LAWS”.
There is no law requiring immigration officials to separate migrant families at the border and past administrations have avoided the practice. The separations are the consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that subjects all migrants who are caught trying to enter the US illegally to criminal prosecution. Children cannot be held in federal jails while the adults await trial and as a result they are removed from their parents.
In a pair of speeches at a conference in New Orleans on Monday, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, stood by the enforcement policy.
“We will not apologize for the job we do, or for the job law enforcement does, for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” Nielsen said, addressing a friendly audience at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference.
“Illegal actions have and must have consequences,” she added. “No more free passes, no more get-out-of-jail-free cards.”
Why are children being separated from their families?
In April 2018, the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced a “zero tolerance” policy under which anyone who crossed the border without legal status would be prosecuted by the justice department. This includes some, but not all, asylum seekers. Because children can’t be held in adult detention facilities, they are being separated from their parents.
Immigrant advocacy groups, however, say hundreds of families have been separated since at least July 2017.
More than 200 child welfare groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the United Nations, said they opposed the practice.
What happens to the children?
They are supposed to enter the system for processing “unaccompanied alien children”, which exists primarily to serve children who voluntarily arrive at the border on their own. Unaccompanied alien children are placed in health department custody within 72 hours of being apprehended by border agents. They then wait in shelters for weeks or months at a time as the government searches for parents, relatives or family friends to place them with in the US.
This already overstretched system has been thrown into chaos by the new influx of children.
Can these children be reunited with their parents?
Immigration advocacy groups and attorneys have warned that there is not a clear system in place to reunite families. In one case, attorneys in Texas said they had been given a phone number to help parents locate their children, but it ended up being the number for an immigration enforcement tip line.
Advocates for children have said they do not know how to find parents, who are more likely to have important information about why the family is fleeing its home country. And if, for instance, a parent is deported, there is no clear way for them to ensure their child is deported with them.
What happened to families before?
This was harshly criticized and a federal court in 2015 stopped the government from holding families for months without explanation. Instead, they were released while they waited for their immigration cases to be heard in court. Not everyone shows up for those court dates, leading the Trump administration to condemn what it calls a “catch and release” program. By Amanda Holpuch
Sessions blamed past administrations for carving out exceptions for migrant families that crossed the border illegally, paving the way for the current crisis.
“Word got out about this loophole with predictable results. The number of aliens illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 – that’s a five-fold increase – in just the last four years,” the attorney general claimed. He added the White House does not “want” to separate children from their parents and that the US is “dedicated to caring for those children”.
“If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices,” he said, urging Congress to act. “We will have a system where those who need to apply for asylum can do so and those who want to come to this country will apply to enter lawfully.”
At turns during the conference, chants of “arrest Sessions” and “Jeff Sessions must go” from a group of demonstrators outside were audible inside the event.
Meanwhile, outside the convention center where Sessions was delievring his remarks, a protester was struck by a pickup truck.
The victim refused medical treatment, according to the New Orleans police department, and was not seriously injured.
Witnesses on the scene said the driver had been cursing at the protesters moments before the woman was struck. But an NOPD official said they were treating the incident as an accident, and had made no arrest or filed any charges against the vehicle operator.
Five demonstrators were also detained by the Orleans parish sheriff’s office. The protesters blocked traffic for a brief period before returning to the road’s median outside the convention hall. The five were issued summonses for “disturbing the peace by protesting”.
On Monday, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama joined Laura Bush in condemning the practice.
A day before, in a rare foray into public policy, Melania Trump weighed in to say that she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together”. While the first lady expressed displeasure with the practice, she avoided blaming her husband’s administration, in effect echoing the president’s claim that the actions are the result of a law passed by Democrats.
In an op-ed, Bush spoke out forcefully against the Trump administration practice, comparing scenes of migrant children locked in cages away from their parents to the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war.
“I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” she wrote in an article in the Washington Post over the weekend.
Obama retweeted the op-ed, adding: “Sometimes truth transcends party.”
Sometimes truth transcends party. https://t.co/TeFM7NmNzU— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) June 18, 2018
And at an event in New York, Clinton called Trump’s assertion that family separation is mandated by law an “outright lie”.
“We are a better country than one that tears families apart, turns a blind eye to women fleeing domestic violence and treats frightened children as a negotiating tool,” she said.
The crisis at the US-Mexico border coincides with an effort by a group of Republicans to pass immigration reform before the November midterms. Trump is pressuring Democrats to negotiate with Republicans on an immigration bill that addresses family separations.
The legislation, crafted as a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, would make it easier for children to be detained and harder for families to claim asylum. The bill also includes longstanding demands from the White House, including funding for a wall along the southern border and restrictions on legal immigration in exchange for legal protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.