Pentagon asked to prepare housing for up to 20,000 migrant children

Recently arrived migrant children play with family and volunteer children at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 21, 2018.
Recently arrived migrant children play with family and volunteer children at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Pentagon is assessing how - and where - to house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on US military bases, a spokesman said Thursday (June 21).

In a Pentagon statement, Lt. Col. Michael Andrews said officials from the Department of Health and Human Services have visited three military bases in Texas and one in Arkansas as the Trump administration seeks to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied children entering the United States.

Andrews indicated that no decisions have been made. "It doesn't mean any or all children would be housed there," he said of the four bases that are being studied.

The Pentagon and Health and Human Services Department "are working closely to determine the requirements and timing for support," Andrews said.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Chuck Schumer, questioned how such a plan to house 20,000 children could work.

"Is it even feasible?" Schumer asked.

The request comes as federal agencies on Thursday offered competing and contradictory explanations of what was happening to immigrant families in the hours after President Donald Trump's order, leaving it unclear where families were being held and whether they were being prosecuted.

New, makeshift detention facilities are being envisioned to house thousands of immigrant families that are illegally entering the United States following Trump's executive order Wednesday, which called for detaining parents and children together instead of separating them.

Officials at the Pentagon also have been assessing whether military bases can be used to house both families and children detained at the border, including at facilities in Texas and Arkansas, one Defense official said.

 
 
 

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was noncommittal, directing questions Wednesday to the Department of Homeland Security.

When pressed, Mattis said, "We have housed refugees. We have housed people thrown out of their homes by earthquakes and hurricanes. We do whatever is in the best interest of the country."

A day after a rare retreat on the issue of separating immigrant children from their parents, Trump lashed out angrily Thursday at what he called "extremist, open-border Democrats" and again falsely blamed them for the political crisis that continues to roil his administration.

Trump, choosing hard-edged remarks at a Cabinet meeting hours before the House was scheduled to vote on overhauling immigration laws, begged for Democratic support on the legislation even as he said Democratic lawmakers were causing "tremendous damage and destruction and lives." And he repeated his false claim that Democrats forced family separations.

"They don't care about the children. They don't care about the injury. They don't care about the problems," Trump said, a scowl on his face and his arms crossed. "They don't care about anything."

The president's stream-of-consciousness commentary also included an attack on Mexico for what he claimed was a failure to help stop illegal immigration into the United States. He said the trek through Mexico from Central America was like a walk through Central Park in New York City.

"Mexico is doing nothing for us except taking our money and giving us drugs," he said.

The president's remarks came amid continuing confusion and uncertainty after his abrupt signing Wednesday of an executive order to end the family separations, which have led to more than 2,300 children being held in makeshift detention facilities and other shelters.

Government officials appear to have been given little time to prepare for the executive order, much the way Trump's original ban on travel from mostly Muslim countries created chaos at airports a week after he took office.

An administration spokesman initially said Wednesday afternoon that the government would not reunite those 2,300 children, but was contradicted that night by a more senior official.

And on Thursday, Justice Department officials scrambled to deny a report, apparently from officials in another agency, that prosecutions of immigrants traveling with families had been completely suspended.

"Their story is not accurate," a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement. "There has been no change to the department's zero-tolerance policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry at the border."

Trump said he has directed his administration to "keep illegal immigrant families together and to reunite these previously separated groups." But he offered no details about how the government intends to bring the families back together.

Melania Trump, the first lady, travelled Thursday to a facility in McAllen, Texas, that is holding 55 children who have been separated from their parents. She took a tour of the facility, called New Hope Children's Shelter, and met with some of the children being held there.

In one classroom, she met with a group of children, some of whom spoke to her in English and others in Spanish, which was translated by their teacher.

"How long are you here? Where are you from?" asked Melania Trump, who travelled with Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary. As she left she said, "Be kind and nice to each other, OK? Nice to meet you."

Officials at the facility say that the children held there are allowed to communicate with their families by phone twice a week.

Back at the White House, Donald Trump's attitude was less gracious as he began his day with a series of angry tweets and calls for changes in the nation's immigration laws.

The first lady's visit came as her husband's administration scrambled to execute his latest executive order. Political pressure was amplified in recent days by images and recordings of young children crying for their parents.

Despite the new executive order, the Trump administration faces the challenge of reuniting more than 2,000 children with their families. And the new policy is expected to face legal challenges if the Trump administration detains families for more than 20 days, the legal limit under the current laws.

"I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated," Trump said as he signed the executive order in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

At a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday, Trump said of other countries: "They're not sending their finest. We're sending them the hell back. That's what we're doing."

Trump has faced pressure to end the policy from his own Republican Party, as well as from his wife and one of his daughters, Ivanka. Since the administration started enforcing the "zero tolerance" policy in May, the first lady has been pressuring her husband not to separate children from their parents.

According to estimates, more than 2,400 children under the age of 12 - many of whom are toddlers and infants - are in special "tender age" shelters. Despite the halting of the separation of families, the children who are already in custody are not expected to be reunited immediately with their families as the adults are in custody during their immigration proceedings, a Health and Human Services official said.

House lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on two competing immigration proposals Thursday, even as the executive order relieved some of the pressure to act quickly.

But Republican leaders delayed a vote on a broader bill that would provide a path to citizenship for young unauthorized immigrants while keeping migrant families together at the border. The measure had appeared destined to fail as Republicans remained at odds over immigration.

The bill, a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, had been set for a vote early Thursday evening, but the vote will now take place Friday, according to a Republican aide.

The House rejected a hard-line immigration bill in a vote Thursday afternoon, as had been expected.