EL PASO, United States (AFP) — The fate of 2,300 children wrested from their parents at the US border with Mexico remained unclear Friday two days after Donald Trump ended migrant family separations, as the president accused Democrats of spinning “phony” tales of suffering for electoral gain.
While the US leader bowed to global outrage over the splitting of families, government agencies were unable to say what would happen to the children already sent to tent camps and other facilities around the country while their parents were charged with immigration offenses.
Having been forced into a climb-down on the hot-button issue of immigration, Trump meanwhile swung back into fighting mode — insisting he remained committed to the “zero tolerance” policy that aims to deter the flow of migrants from Central America.
“We must maintain a Strong Southern Border. We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections,” he tweeted.
Accusing Democrats of “playing games,” Trump urged Republican lawmakers to “stop wasting their time on Immigration” until after the November midterm polls.
The president’s comments came a day after divided congressional Republicans failed to pass one bill that promised to reform laws regarding illegal immigrants, and a second proposal was put off until next week.
And while Melania Trump sought to demonstrate concern with a surprise visit to migrant children at the border Thursday, the administration remained under siege amid continued accounts of parents unable to find their children and no system in place for reuniting them.
– Under siege –
Protestors demonstrated Friday morning outside the suburban Washington home of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, two days after Trump announced her department would take over the handling and processing of families at the border.
They held posters reading “Child Snatcher” in large letters with photos of Nielsen — who has faced intense scrutiny as the public face of the hardline border policy.
Some reunifications were taking place, though it was not clear whether they involved the 700 children taken from parents between October and April, or the 2,300 since the mandatory prosecution of illegal border crossers, whose children were taken away as a result, began in early May.
Others remained in painful limbo.
One woman, Cindy Madrid from El Salvador, dictated her US-resident sister’s phone number to her six-year-old daughter before she crossed the border and the family was separated.
The child was one of those heard crying out—and reciting the number — in an audio recording reportedly made inside a detention centre, which galvanized opposition to the separations.
“It’s maddening because at every moment I ask myself, ‘How is she? Has she eaten? Are they taking care of her? Do they shower her?'” Madrid told CNN in an interview Thursday from a detention centre in Port Isabel, Texas.
“There are many more rooms full of women going through the same thing,” she said. “The majority are from Honduras. Four of us from El Salvador.”
Madrid said the dormitories erupted with joy when the news broke that Trump was stopping the family separations.
Since then, they have received little information about how and when they might see their children again.
– Going back ‘not an option’ –
Republicans, who control the US Congress, are under intense pressure to address the issue of illegal immigration, but lawmakers failed Thursday to advance either of two bills in a sign of stubborn party divisions.
A hardline proposal was defeated as expected, while a vote on a compromise between the party’s conservative and moderate wings was pushed back to next week.
Tens of thousands of people from impoverished, violence-stricken Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and parts of Mexico have crossed the US border since last year requesting asylum. Trump’s crackdown hasn’t deterred them, at least yet.
“We don’t see going back to where we came from as an option,” Jose Abel Mendez, 28, who travelled from El Salvador with his wife and children, aged 10 months, six and 10, told AFP in the border city of Tijuana.
The Mendez family has been waiting two weeks for US officials to let them formally request asylum — a long wait that is pushing many to cross the border illegally, according to activists.
“I’m taking the risk to try to make a better life,” said Honduran Wielder Lopez, also waiting in Tijuana for the right moment to cross.
The government appeared to be preparing for the flow of migration to continue unabated. The Defence Department said it was preparing 20,000 temporary beds on military bases to hold children who cross the border unaccompanied by parents.
Currently about 10,000 unaccompanied children are being held, in addition to the children forcibly separated from their parents at the border.