WASHINGTON • The United States is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases, a Pentagon spokesman said, as federal officials struggled to carry out President Donald Trump's order to keep immigrant families together after they are apprehended at the border.
The 20,000 beds at bases in Texas and Arkansas would house "unaccompanied alien children", Pentagon spokesman Michael Andrews said on Thursday, although other federal agencies provided conflicting explanations about how the shelters would be used and who would be housed there.
It was unclear whether the military housing would also house the parents of children in migrant families that have been detained, and officials at the White House, the Defence Department and the Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday that they could not provide details.
The Pentagon announcement came as Republicans were running out of options to deal with the political damage left by Mr Trump's border policy, after one Republican immigration Bill went down to defeat in Congress on Thursday and a vote on an alternative version was delayed until next week.
The White House has grappled with fierce criticism in recent weeks over the policy that has separated more than 2,300 children - many of whom are toddlers and infants - from their families in order to prosecute parents for crossing the border illegally.
Mr Trump backed down on Wednesday, signing an executive order to keep families together in detention during immigration proceedings.
In the Senate, lawmakers are forging ahead with narrowly tailored proposals designed to keep families intact while their immigration cases are pending. But any action there may be weeks away.
Democrats questioned the 20,000-bed plan. "Is it even feasible?" Senator Chuck Schumer asked from the Senate floor.
Advocates for the migrants expressed concern about the prospect of vast settlements of families housed on military bases, and described widespread uncertainty at the border.
"There are conflicting instructions being given," said Ms Michelle Brane, director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women's Refugee Commission. "It is another example of this administration making these big, bold policy announcements with no plan for how they are going to implement them."
Initially, a Trump administration spokesman said on Wednesday afternoon that the government would not reunite the children with their parents. But that was contradicted that night by a more senior official. On Thursday, Justice Department officials denied a report, apparently issued by officials from another agency, that prosecutions of immigrants travelling with families had been suspended.
Scrambling to adjust and comply with the President's order, the Border Patrol temporarily stopped referring immigration cases for prosecution to the Justice Department, setting off rumours that they would be halted altogether.
That forced the Justice Department to insist in a statement that "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".
It was unclear on Thursday whether the military would play a more central role in Mr Trump's plan. He made no public comment on how his executive order was being carried out.
He also resumed angrily lashing out at "extremist, open-border Democrats" following his own retreat on the issue of separating families. And he again falsely blamed Democrats for the political crisis roiling his administration and which has been amplified in recent days by images and recordings of young children crying for their parents.
He also called on Republicans to stop "wasting their time" on overhauling immigration legislation until after the November elections.